The difficulty with "celebrity" restaurants is that those who put their names on the doors have often done so mainly for a royalty, with very little real-time participation in day-to-day operations. Therefore we were eager to see whether we'd spot the owner at the new Jackie Smith's Louisiana Café, the latest occupant of a well-located but highly turned-over space at the intersection of Clayton and Clarkson roads in west St. Louis County.
Full disclosure: As a former Cardinal football season-ticket holder in the cheap bleacher seats, I unashamedly revere Smith as one of the greatest tight ends in the history of the game, unfortunately indentured to one of the worst owners in the history of the game. Nonetheless, running a pass pattern has no direct correlation to running a good restaurant, and we were certainly going to put his claim of "Hall of Fame food, Hall of Fame service" to the test.
As for the question of participation, sure enough, five minutes into the first visit there was Jackie, in motion in the main dining room, steadily working from table to table, then going long into the kitchen and coming back again to run interference for a server bringing an order to a table of six. We saw him on his feet, working the room, throughout the duration of the meal.
And it got even better on the second visit. With already a half-hour wait well before 6 on a weekend evening, we opted to sit in the smoking section next to the bar and were soon joined by Mrs. Smith at a nearby table, along with Smith's son (a ringer for golfer David Duval) and a gaggle of Smith grandkids. We later discovered that daughter Angie Smith Yarborough was working the kitchen, and Jackie himself again tirelessly made the rounds, taking a couple of momentary breaks to kiss his wife and dandle a grandbaby.
With any suspicion of rent-a-name thrown for a loss, the next question was whether Louisiana transplant Smith could transplant the food of his youth several hundred miles up the Mississippi and put it out in such quantity and quality that he could please the 200-or-so people at a time the Louisiana Café seats.
After sampling such specialties as oysters Bienville, Cajun popcorn, barbecued shrimp and crab imperial -- along with sides like cheese grits and smothered cabbage -- we came to the conclusion that Smith's work ethic has been justly rewarded in the way his new restaurant has come together. The food is every bit as good as what you'd find in both urban and rural Louisiana, and both the service and our fellow diners carried an enthusiastic buzz that was conducive to a good time.
Anyone who ate in the art-laden ambiance of previous tenant The Gallery will barely recognize the interior, which was totally done over to amplify the Louisiana atmosphere. The smoking section and bar are physically separated from the main dining room by a facsimile of a bayou shack, complete with white clapboard, green shutters and colored lanterns. The split-level dining room has a classic Garden District wrought-iron fence as a divider, and the room is dominated by a mural of urban and rural Louisiana scenes.
Tables are set with oilcloths and towels serve as napkins, in anticipation of the messiness of such dishes as the "barbecued" shrimp, which is actually eight jumbos, shells on, in an oily, brown, delicious garlic butter. You have to pick them up and peel them, and it's almost inevitable that you'll splatter yourself, but it's worth it.
The Cajun "popcorn" is fried, cornbreaded crawfish tail meat served with a remoulade dip. Although the dish is based on frozen tails, they do just fine in retaining the lobsterlike texture; the order comprises some 40 or 50 pieces. The Louisiana Café's take on alligator meat is best described as gator McNuggets, about a dozen served with a light mustard cream, cooked well enough that they still have a springy resistance but avoid the eraser consistency that sometimes detracts from alligator.
On the steak side, we were quite pleased with the Grand Cajun, a 22-ounce on-bone ribeye that could be redundantly described as smothered in crawfish etouffée. The meat carried a light seared crust of mildly spicy seasonings, and the three-quarter-inch thickness allowed for perfect medium-rare cooking with lots of juiciness to interact with the crawfish topping. The ubiquitous crawfish is also available in a more unusual form, a 10-inch, wood-fire-baked New Orleans pizza featuring a basic béchamel sauce instead of tomato sauce to spread out the flavor of the crawfish, along with shrimp and crab.
But perhaps the most telling moment in our meals came in a side order of hush puppies, often just a clunky afterthought to a Southern-style meal but in this case akin to savory beignets, with an airy texture similar to that of the Café du Monde delicacy. Our waitress noted that this was the second or third iteration in the restaurant's attempt to come up with just the right recipe.
Many of the recipes do, in fact, come from Smith's youth, but he's also had the good sense to import an actual Cajun chef -- one Kernis Louvière of New Iberville, La. -- to assist him and Phil Kurrus in putting together the menu. Beyond the Cajun stuff, the menu includes the chicken wings Smith popularized at Jackie's Place, the restaurant he ran where Sportsman's Park is now located. This style of wing is most closely associated with Buffalo, N.Y., but because the main ingredient is cayenne-pepper (Louisiana hot) sauce, it certainly matches the motif, and the version here is better than most, with the sauce cooked long enough that it fires up subtly rather than simply providing a full-blown kick up front.
Desserts are made in-house, and we were most taken with the bread pudding, another dish that was quite airy when we were expecting a heavier texture, made even more so by a thin meringue on top.
There's a wine list of maybe a dozen each red and white, but the spiciness of the food -- even the smothered cabbage leaves a lingering fire -- doesn't lend itself to wine. Plenty of other beverages are available, though, including such high-octane New Orleans classics as the Hurricane and the Sazerac cocktail (whose licorice taste goes oddly well with spicy-hot food), as well as a Bloody Mary made with Absolut Peppar that, coupled with the Cajun dishes, will make all but the most resolute fire-eaters break out in a sweat.
The final successful element of Jackie Smith's game plan is the prices. Except for the steaks, entrees are $15 or less, and several -- shrimp creole, jambalaya and the like -- come in under 10 bucks. Certainly some locals will visit the Louisiana Café to rub elbows with a Hall of Famer and drink in the sports-bar part of the atmosphere, but even for those who don't care a sous about football, Jackie Smith's is a great Cajun meal.