The new Louisiana Cafe has an undeniable magic. It takes the spicy, funky cooking of the bayou and the French quarter and presents it in a sophisticated uptown setting. This inspired combination of down-home with big-night-out has incredible appeal.
The owners have taken an awfully big gamble here. Their venture is housed in the former home of two doomed Mexican restaurants, Dante's and Tortilla Flats. The street is being torn up, and right outside are two of Baltimore's least serene settings, the Block and local police headquarters. The Cafe looks great, though. The gaudier elements of the Mexican occupation have been swept away. The tile floor is now carpeted, and cool, contemporary paintings of jazz musicians decorate the walls. However, the courtyard structure, with its stucco arches and fountain, remains, and looks just right; from Mexican romance to Creole glamour is not that much of a stretch.
The Louisiana Cafe has other prime assets, too. The service is both classy and warm-hearted. And there is live jazz several nights a week -- very good news for Baltimore. With any justice, this place should beat the Brokerage curse and become the hot spot the neighborhood needs.
Prices are high, though, and the unevenness of the food registered more negatively than it would in a dressed-down Cajun cafe.
That unevenness was not apparent at first, as the appetizers were winners. Boudin ($4.95) is a traditional home-made Cajun sausage of ground meats, rice and spices loosely packed in sausage casing. The seasoning sparkled, and the finished product might be contradictorily described as "exciting comfort food."
Oysters Rockefeller ($6.25) were heaped with twice the normal share of cheesy spinach spiked with Pernod, which interacted with the oysters in unexpected, subtly pleasing ways.
If the Louisiana Cafe has a claim to fame, it may be the clam chowder ($3.75); word has it that the Campbell's soup company liked it so much they tried to buy the recipe from chef James Shivers. This creamy, herb-laced red bisque was absolutely laden with clams -- and too much oregano for my taste, which spoiled the balance of flavors. But it was otherwise first-class.
I'm fond of barbecued ribs, and didn't realize until too late that this was not the place to order them. This was not the fault of the ribs, which were meaty, fragrant with baked-in spices and bathed in tangy, well-spiced cranberry barbecue sauce. But ribs are messy. I felt like a wimp tackling them with knife and fork, but picking them up and gnawing the bones in this soignee setting seemed barbaric. I think I'll stick to places like Cafe Tattoo, where I can be a slob, and where baby back ribs cost a lot less than $18.95.
Our major mistake was the spicy Cajun stuffed lobster (market price $23.95). We still haven't figured out what the chef was trying to do with this dish, which was a waste of a great American ingredient. Only a few chunks of lobster remained intact; the rest was ground up into a spiced mush reminiscent in taste and texture of soggy turkey stuffing.
Desserts include Creole bread pudding with nutmeg-scented praline whiskey sauce, and a definitively Southern pecan potato pie.
On my next trip -- and there will be one -- I hope to luck into better offerings. This is the kind of place that deserves second and third chances.
Where: 34 Market Place, the Brokerage.
Hours: Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; dinner 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 6 p.m. to
11 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays; light fare 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Saturdays.
Credit Cards: AE, MC, V.
Features: Creole and Cajun cuisine.