Back home, they saw a potential niche for the food, not just because of the relative lack of Cajun and Creole offerings in the greater metropolitan area but even more so because their own immediate North County vicinity seemed to hold great promise for a neighborhood place. And, as it turns out, the location they picked also has proximity to Interstate 270, which puts their little Louisiana transplantation within a short drive of a large number of potential fire-eaters.
If you're partial to the stuff from down on the bayou, I definitely recommend giving the Jameses a shot. Their food reminded me of many of my old and current favorites from among the fine collection of New Orleans dives -- a word I don't consider necessarily negative to begin with, implying instead that the places have been well broken in and possess a certain amount of, well, character. Anyway, the decor at N'Orleans Café, though fairly minimalist, is definitively undivelike, although the strip office/retail center in which it's located has seen better days. (Get there by heading north two lights from I-270 on West Florissant Road; the Touring Cyclist is on your left, and the strip mall and restaurant are on the right.) The restaurant seats about 40, with the Louisiana theme underscored by a collection of Mardi Gras masks, a framed French Quarter T-shirt and wavy mirrors that show how the world might look to you after a more than prudent amount of time spent on Bourbon Street. Our table featured a poster of Dizzy Gillespie under a clear-plastic covering, and when the TV was turned down (more on that in a minute), jazz came from the stereo in the corner.
When it comes right down to the food, however, Kevin -- the chef in the family -- obviously knows how to let les bontemps rouler. As we wandered from alligator kebabs to gumbo to blackened catfish, the consistent theme was a reasonable hand on the seasoning, unlike any number of places that have picked up on the Cajun theme and promptly overindulged, for example, in cayenne for cayenne's sake.
This was especially apparent in the blackened catfish, two full fillets coated in a powdery spice mixture and pan-blackened, but much more on one side than on the other. I've had any number of blackened dishes in which the spice, most notably the hot pepper, simply overwhelmed the fish or meat. Here, however, the spices started out subtle and kicked a bit more strongly at the end but blended with each other for a savory, almost sweet aftertaste. The dish was served with simple sides of sliced French bread and a whole stewed tomato.
Among the classic New Orleans dishes, the gumbo (available in appetizer and full-meal portions) comprised about a dozen medium-size shelled-to-the-tail shrimp with sausage, tomato and parsley, along with a large scoop of rice -- again, featuring a rich mixture of spices with a lingering finish. The jambalaya had a bit more of a smoky flavor from the chunks of ham generously portioned among the shrimp and rice.
What does alligator taste like? Definitely not like chicken. It's more like monkfish in taste, but even meatier than that very firm fish -- kind of like the feel you get from country-style, thick-cut pork ribs. The important thing here is that it was cooked at the right time and temperature to eliminate any chewiness, with the marinade adding a vaguely Oriental sweetness.
Speaking of Oriental, the spicy-shrimp-rolls appetizer had strong Thai/Vietnamese overtones: Five shrimp in a deep-fried wrap were served with a viscous soy-based dipping sauce laced with red-pepper flakes. It was enjoyable, but somehow it just didn't seem to belong, as if someone put a short Mozart composition in the middle of an album of Dixieland favorites.
We noticed the sweet-potato pie among the dessert selections almost immediately after opening the menu, and our anticipation wasn't disappointed. This was a top-notch version of the down-home delicacy, with a flaky crust surrounding the creamy fruit of the tuber, was spiced with hints of citrus, cinnamon and nutmeg to transform it from a side dish to a delectable dessert.
Bar service is available, and beer is generally the best hard chaser for a Cajun meal, although it would be nice if N'Orleans Café would find a way to import Blackened Voodoo and some of the other Dixie brews to make the experience even more authentic.
The menu is the same for lunch or dinner, but the lunch offerings also include a buffet stocked with ribs, catfish, wings, sweet potatoes, a couple of stewed greens, and red beans and rice. One New Orleans staple we didn't get to was the po-boy, which is available in 6-inch and foot-long sizes with a choice of fried shrimp, andouille, roast beef, black ham and combination interiors.
About that TV set: When cranked up, it really detracts from the atmosphere. It appeared that the N'Orleans does a significant carry-out business in addition to its sit-down trade, and perhaps the TV is intended to keep the in-and-out folks occupied while they wait. But it was definitely a distraction, and it added nothing to the illusion that one was in proximity to a streetcar named Desire, be it at a dinner club or a "dive."
Nonetheless, the Jameses and their staff were over-the-top friendly, and I daresay I'd watch a lot of too-loud bad TV for the opportunity to eat Kevin's cooking.
N'ORLEANS CAFE, 4005 Seven Hills Dr. (Florissant), 314-831-8810. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 11 a.m.-midnight Fri. & Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $7.50-$15.99