At Louisiana, indulgence is always the current trend

Menu features skill, haute cuisine, imagination and Southern comfort

Sunday Gourmet

August 15, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Asian minimalism and low-carb diets may be hot trends in the food world, but Louisiana has never heard of them. More power to Fells Point's most engaging restaurant, where haute cuisine meets Southern comfort food. Here dishes like crab bisque with jumbo lump crabmeat and veal tenderloin in puff pastry with foie gras are the order of the day. And you have to love the fact that the three a la carte side dishes offered at this upscale restaurant are andouille sausage, collard greens and creamy grits.

A meal here, in other words, will remind you that eating out can be wicked fun.

It doesn't hurt that Louisi-ana is also Fells Point's most handsome restaurant. The bar and dining room downstairs have a period elegance, with dark paneling, chandeliers and wrought iron, comfortable banquettes, tables set with snowy white linen and heavy flatware, and a tasteful nude in an ornate frame at the entrance. It's elegant but not stuffy -- a stuffy restaurant would never have smooth jazz playing in the background. Upstairs is another dining room; by the end of the year, Louisiana should have an antebellum-style banquet hall in back, now under construction.

When Louisiana opened almost five years ago, it found its niche almost immediately because of its talented executive chef, Damon Hersh. The next year, there was a falling out, although neither Hersh nor owners John and Dottie Saki would talk about it. Hersh left on what turned out to be a temporary stop at the Blue Pointe Grille in Ellicott City and a training sabbatical in Washington. He came back to Louisiana in May.

How are things different now from when he helped open Louisiana?

"I'm a little more aggressive about updating the menu," he says. "There are one or two new things every week."

Those new things are usually seasonal, like a yellow tomato and basil salad or gazpacho garnished with popcorn crayfish. But the restaurant's signature dishes don't change. Huge shrimp blackened New Orleans style nestle with creamy grits and a sweet corn emulsion that offsets their spiciness. You'll wonder how you'll ever be able to follow this sublime but filling appetizer with an entree, but you won't be able to resist cleaning your plate.

Catfish fillets with a delicate crust of mustard and chopped pecans are flanked by tasso ham, collard greens and whipped potatoes for true down-home appeal with a refined touch. This is about the only clear-cut nod to Louisiana cuisine among the main courses. The others go down one of two paths.

There's the seemingly light but satisfyingly rich, like the sea scallops, sweet and succulent, which find a perfect foil in the lobster and watercress risotto. Their sauce is a shy clam and mustard reduction.

Other dishes on the menu are out-and-out pure indulgence. Try Louisiana's version of beef Wellington. Instead of beef tenderloin, the kitchen uses veal tenderloin, which is incredibly tender and can be cooked longer without drying out the meat (so the pastry has a chance to bake properly). Instead of the traditional pate, Hersh uses meltingly rich foie gras in the dish. A dark, full-bodied Madeira sauce finishes it off.

Seafood is center stage at the restaurant this time of year. The clean flavors of grilled baby octopus, scallops, shrimp and mussels are heightened by their lime marinade; they are bedded down on mixed greens. A Louisiana crab cake is every bit as wonderful as a Maryland crab cake. (And really, who can tell the difference?) What makes this dish stand out, though, are the accompanying flavors of summer: a roasted corn and fennel salad, a real summer tomato, and a roasted red pepper remoulade. The different temperatures of the ingredients play off each other as well as the tastes.

Not everything is as traditional as a crab cake. Among the surprises on the menu is a refreshing layered timbale of deep red beets and a creamy white custard made of chevre. Walnuts add crunch, and green apple and white truffles offer unexpected notes of flavor.

There are glitches. The waiter warned us that the rack of lamb was American, not from New Zealand. We didn't realize that would mean two large rib lamb chops, not a rack of lamb at all. And desserts, oddly, didn't quite live up to the rest of the food. Bananas foster for two had all the proper ingredients -- bananas, brown sugar, rum, banana liqueur and butter, cooked tableside and spooned over ice cream -- but the bananas weren't sauteed long enough. Bread pudding was good, but not the outrageous indulgence it should be. The best was a classic chocolate mousse -- unfortunately garnished with a tired strawberry. Not a big deal, but disconcerting when everything else was beautifully presented.

For the most part, though, at Louisiana you get what you hope for when you want to celebrate a special occasion -- and it will be a special occasion, even if you're just meeting friends for dinner. You get what you pay for, and you also pay for what you get. This will not be an inexpensive meal, but the food, setting and service will make you happy you sprang for it.

Louisiana

Food: ***1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Where: 1708 Aliceanna St., Fells Point

Hours: Open for dinner nightly.

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$12; Entrees: $19-$36

Call: 410-327-2610

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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