My direct experience with New Orleans cooking comes in four major flavors. At the high end, it's places such as Bayona and The Grill at the Windsor Court -- creative, often daring and unusual, and generally quite expensive. Next up is the Galatoire's style -- classy Creole but straightforward and still pretty pricey. Then come the touristy "I gare-on-tee" Cajun and oyster-bar places, such as K-Paul's and Acme, and, finally, down at the low end (for price and atmosphere but not necessarily value) is my longtime French Quarter haunt, a delightful dive called Coop's Place.
To put the two ends of the scale in perspective, the last time I was in New Orleans, I was lucky enough to be employed by a guy who believed in always doing business in a first-class manner and who had put us up at the Windsor Court, whose closest St. Louis analog is probably the Ritz-Carlton. When I asked the concierge which way several co-workers and I should take to walk to Coop's, he almost laughed out loud and said that most of the staff of the Windsor Court ate at Coop's quite frequently but that this was the first time in his memory a guest had asked for directions.
The episode came to mind as we wandered through various items on the menu at New Orleans By-You, a relatively new Cajun place up in Florissant. I didn't have to ask for directions, because the restaurant occupies exactly the same space in the Florissant Oaks strip mall as a short-lived Thai restaurant that we reviewed many months back.
The menu, whose selections are almost exclusively priced at 10 bucks and under, features all of the same characters you'll find wandering Bourbon, Iberville, Chartres, Decatur and the adjacent back alleys of the best-known district in the Crescent City: Gumbos thick with sausage, chicken, seafood -- whatever's at hand. Creoles, étouffées, jambalaya, red beans and rice -- fairly simple ingredients and melodic names for dishes that often pack a cayenne-induced punch. Homemade pralines for dessert.
And, as New Orleans saloons do, a great many of the entrée-style dishes are fried. In the case of the stuff we had at New Orleans By-You, there was a distinctly delicate touch on both the breading and the oil -- on the shrimp-and-catfish combination, for example, we actually felt compelled to ask whether it had been baked rather than fried -- and for absolutely everything we ordered, the portion sizes were more than filling, sometimes bulked up with rice but satisfying all the same.
The place also has a strong dose of that distinctively New Orleans joie de vivre, illustrated most vividly through a vibrant, concertedly offbeat staff and reinforced by the expected collection of aprons, T-shirts, jazz-themed drawings, beads, masks and other semitacky Mardibilia defining that aspect of New Orleans' personality. With '60s and '70s funk -- the Temptations doing "Psychedelic Shack," among other selections -- pumping noticeably but not deafeningly out of the sound system, we were served on our first visit by a bubbly waitress named Yvonne whose head-to-toe single-color garb made her our personal lady in red.
On that visit, we started off with a clever little riff on common cheese garlic bread that added a sizable helping of bay shrimp and significant garlic to the cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, resulting in a great bar food. In addition to the shrimp-and-catfish combination -- which included four butterflied shrimp and two fillets of catfish, with cocktail and remoulade sauces as dips -- we tried the crab cakes, notable both for the inclusion of flaky crabmeat in the mix and the "shrimp gravy," which looked and tasted like what you'd get if you took the sausage out of the white gravy often served with biscuits and substituted a shrimp base.
Next time we were in, Yvonne and another waitress tag-teamed us, which resulted in one of the few real negatives we encountered: In their rush to be attentive (and we saw every server trying to greet and serve customers within a short time after they were seated, regardless of whether it was that server's table assignment or not), the staff brought out orders willy-nilly as they were prepared, with appetizers sometimes following entrées and entrées arriving regardless of whether the previous course had been finished. It's an easy mistake to correct but one that should be, nonetheless.
This time, we decided to see what New Orleans By-You could do with alligator. The fried appetizer comprised eight or 10 variously sized chunks of meat with a springy texture somewhere between that of squid and an eraser, served with a small side bowl of sweet, tangy yellow ooze called "swamp sauce." Again, it was an enjoyable extension of standard saloon food, the only drawback being that the smallest pieces' flavor was overshadowed by the breading. Our other appetizer, the King Cheese fries, was distinguished primarily by its size, something like more than a half-pound of full-gauge french fries and an appropriately large topping of mozzarella, cheddar and a bit of Parmesan -- not especially New Orleans and not the best deal among the appetizers at $5.75.
We stayed away from further fried appetizers by going with a bowl of the Mumbo Gumbo (one of three gumbos offered) and the peel-and-eat shrimp, both of which continued the theme of big portions at value prices. The gumbo was something like 90 to 95 percent solid ingredients -- small crab claws scattered on top, with bay shrimp and chunks of chicken and sausage mixed with rice underneath -- and the remainder a rich reddish-brown liquid. The shrimp numbered about 16, medium in size with a fairly standard shrimp-boil spicing that seemed to have just a hint of cayenne thrown in for emphasis.
You select one of seven sides with each entrée, and I was hip to the fried okra but negative on New Orleans By-You's version of red beans and rice, which was entirely too garlicky for my taste. Fries, coleslaw, hush puppies, dirty rice and creamed corn are the other choices.
On-menu desserts include two pies and bread pudding, and a buttermilk pie -- more of a tartlet -- was also offered on one of our visits. The "Georgie Porgie" pie was a kick -- cake, coconut, nuts and chocolate filling, tossed together like a sweet-tooth version of jambalaya -- and the buttermilk pie was rich without being too heavy. The bread pudding was OK, but the juxtaposition of cool lemon sauce on warm bread pudding was a little jarring.
And for those who've always wanted to be a critic, an integral part of the New Orleans By-You experience is filling out a notecard at the end of your meal. The nice ones ring the dining room, indicating that dozens of folks up Florissant way are quite happy that there's a taste of New Orleans by them.