It's getting on toward dinnertime and deep in the kitchen of the Louisiana Cafe, the action begins to heat up.
As the first orders come through, the line cooks start shucking oysters for the oysters Bienville, ladling up steaming bowls of Creole shrimp bisque and Louisiana Creole gumbo, and dishing out servings of dirty rice.
Chef (and also owner) James Shivers grabs a knife from the rack in the wall, swiftly cuts a fillet from a large piece of redfish, dips it first in his own blend of spices, then in butter and drops it gingerly on a white-hot flat top.
Flames leap up and, despite the bank of exhaust fans roaring like a Gulf Coast hurricane, the whole kitchen fills with the wonderful aroma of blackened redfish -- the dish that has addicted nearly the entire country to the delights of Cajun and Creole cuisine.
In seconds the fish is turned and taken up, then carefully placed on a bed of dirty rice and garnished. Mr. Shivers places it on the shelf for the waiter and looks over with an it's-going-to-really-get-them smile on his face.
James Shivers is not one of those chefs who jumped aboard the bandwagon when Louisiana cooking became popular. This is the food he was born to, raised on and learned to cook from his father and grandmother.
"I've been doing blackened redfish since I was 7 or 8 years old," he says. "I was born in New Orleans. My grandparents were Creole and I'm a third-generation chef."
After studying at Morris Brown College, he refined his cooking skills with a classical chef's training, first at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, then with the renowned chef Anton Mosimann in Switzerland.
After his training, he returned to Louisiana where he ran several restaurants in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans. For a time he ran the catering service for the skyboxes at the New Orleans Superdome. After moving to Washington several years ago he did the same thing at RFK Stadium, as well as having his own outside catering company.
Mr. Shivers, who calls himself "a workaholic and a perfectionist," makes everything from scratch, including his own roux and stocks for the soups, gumbos and the Louisiana clam chowder -- a chowder so tasty that Campbell's tried unsuccessfully to buy the recipe from him.
"The food has to stay authentic," he says. "I love food and respect food. I want the customers to scrape the bowls and take a piece of bread to wipe the juice off the rims."
Mr. Shivers took over the space in the Brokerage that first opened as a Mexican restaurant called Dante's. He redid the dining room, putting down a thick slate blue carpet over the gaudy Mexican tiles. He added white cafe curtains, rebuilt the bar, but left the archways and fountain to create a subtle atmosphere, more like the French Quarter than Mexico City.
In addition to the blackened redfish, the menu includes shrimp remoulade, Cajun boudin, Cajun barbecue shrimp, crawfish ettoufee, spicy Cajun stuffed lobster, blackened prime rib, Creole rack of ribs, grilled quail, red beans and rice, Cajun chicken and rice soup, Creole bread pudding with praline whiskey sauce and Cajun pecan sweet potato pie. The lunch menu includes New Orleans style po-boy sandwiches, crab meat au gratin, Louisiana seafood stew, jambalaya and Cajun grilled chicken breast with tasso ham.
To make the Louisiana Cafe even more like New Orleans, Mr. Shivers has started having live jazz performances Wednesday to Sunday evenings. One weekend a month they put in a stage and lights for performances by big-name jazz groups. Recent performers have included Kim Waters and Stanley Turrentine. This evening Pieces of a Dream is playing at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Lonnie Liston Smith is coming Nov. 30, Dec. 1 and 2. Dinner is served with the performances.
On Sundays there is a champagne jazz brunch from multiple buffet tables from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Live jazz is played from noon on. Next February Mr. Shivers plans a two-week Mardi Gras celebration and is negotiating to bring in zydeco, Dixieland and Creole bands from Louisiana.
"I want to create the total Louisiana experience," he says, with a smile. "I like folks to have atmosphere and when I put food in front of them and they taste it, it just blows them away."
The restaurant is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. Dinner is served from 6 to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 6 to 11 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays (light fare is served from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursday and Friday nights and until 1:30 a.m. on Saturdays) and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
The Louisiana Cafe is located in the Brokerage at 34 Market Place. There is also an entrance on Frederick Street between Water and Baltimore streets. The telephone number is 547-1111.
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