Like so many Louisiana-born chefs, Paul Martin has rambled far from the distinctive rustic flavors of his childhood table in Lafayette. But has his gumbo - that deep, dark, untouchable, roux-enriched corner of any true Cajun cook's soul - survived the journey intact?
There has been a world of distractions, beginning with the patisseries of Northern France, which, as a late teen, Martin enjoyed while trying to become a professional cyclist. There were the Southwestern accents he acquired in Austin, Texas, where he began his cooking career. Then came the early stirrings of the farm-to-table movement in Portland, Ore., which often brought freshly dug chanterelles to his kitchen door in the Northwest.
His arrival in Philly six years ago, meanwhile, and his subsequent trek through some of the trendy corners of the Starr restaurant universe - Asian-fusion Pod and Nuevo Latino Alma de Cuba - could only be confusing to any deep-seated Southern mojo.
And yet, when I put a spoon into Martin's return-to-roots bowl of chicken-and-andouille gumbo at Catahoula, it flipped lights on my taste buds that hadn't been lit since my own Louisiana days. The broth is darker than most northern cooks would ever dream of serving, a deep mahogany-red hue that comes from slow-roasting roux to the color of chocolate. And the darkness channels a roasty, nutty depth, allowing the earthy savor of smoked meat, tender chicken, and a prickly cayenne heat to rise through the murk like a bloom on the Bayou Teche.
A bowl of this gumbo alone is worth the visit to Catahoula, the new Queen Village gastropub named for Louisiana's state dog. As a child, Martin actually had a dog named Pepper that was part Catahoula. (It was also part beagle, but "Beagle Bar" just didn't have the same ring. . .)
This is not to say Martin is the best Louisiana chef I've tasted around Philly (Don and Kate Applebaum at Cajun Kate's in Boothwyn still hold that edge; Ted Iwachiw at Medford's Ted's on Main is also game). There are a number of dishes on Catahoula's menu that are still in need of serious tweaks. But true Louisiana cooking shows itself more as an attitude in two-fisted seasoning than any particular technique or recipe, and Martin's food has a swagger that, when it works, can taste like the genuine Boudreaux.
Tenderly roasted oysters come beneath a double dose of decadence, a creamy dollop of crab béchamel glazed with saffron beurre blanc. Plump poached shrimp are tossed in a rémoulade of aioli sparked with grain mustard and tart nuggets of house-made pickles. A platter of Tasso-studded jambalaya, its rice enriched with duck fat, duck jus, and thyme, gets crowned with a salty, gamy, tender leg of duck confit.
For BBQ shrimp, I'm used to head-on crustaceans submerged in pools of molten butter. Martin takes some Northern liberties here (the shrimp are shell-off and sautéed) but sacrifices no zip, thanks to a crawfish stock spiked with Worcestershire and Crystal hot sauce.
Catahoula's earnest stab at Louisiana comfort - with even a rare bowl of buttery, subtle crawfish bisque - is welcome in a city with too few practitioners of the Cajun-Creole canon. It also happens to represent a full circle of sorts for this quirky Queen Village space, which was once a neighborhood dive known as La Creole before dabbling for about a year in the upscale aspirations of a palm-fringed BYOB named Sauté.
Reviving the space as a lively and casual neighborhood hang was a smart idea, as I saw the same young faithful perched here holding court each night I visited. With prices ranging from around $10 for po-boys to $19 for the most expensive entrée, it invites repeat diners better than Sauté's notably more expensive plates.
For good karma, owner Nechama Kaufman even brought the old La Creole bar (now refinished) back out from storage. Going with Martin's Louisiana theme was a natural to distinguish it from the dozens of other gastropubs popping up around town. And the room has started to acquire the feel of Southern joint without getting overly cliché, from the bar back shelves stocked with jars of house-pickled green beans and okra, to the breezy patio strung with Christmas lights and the gravelly strains of Tom Waits, blues harps, and New Orleans piano riffs floating down through ceiling fans onto the bar and high-top seats.
It's a small room - just 34 chairs - and the bar works well enough within a limited focus of its thematic lens, turning out well-crafted takes on classic cocktails (a slightly sweet but herbsainted Sazerac, a bracing French 75, and a big selection of Abita beer, though there are also other better American craft brews.)
I only wish Martin's kitchen was more consistent. The sturdy cornmeal-buttermilk crust is fantastic for the tart fried green tomatoes dabbed with vivid green-onion aioli. But I found the breading too thick and cumbersome for the fried oysters, which otherwise would have been excellent alongside their Pernod-scented, bacon-studded creamed spinach.
Ditto for those fried oysters in the po-boy - too thick on the crunch. The fried shrimp po-boy, though, was outstanding, tossed with zippy rémoulade and shredded lettuce, and tucked into a delicate (unseeded) Sarcone's roll that is about the closest Philly can get to the flaky crust of an airy New Orleans French loaf. I wish I could say the same for the crackery flat breads, which need more substance for hearty toppings like shrimp, andouille, and smoked Gouda.
There were only a few outright duds. Martin's andouille - a too-finely-ground phony brought in from Vermont, of all places - isn't good enough to be featured solo as a "hot dog." The fries alongside were supposedly homemade, but our limp potatoes could have used an extra fry in the crisper. And while I'm all for updating classics with modern flourishes (like those addictive smoked Gouda grits), I don't think "truffled tartar" belongs anywhere near fried catfish, an unmistakably swampy-tasting fish that works best when it stays humble.
For the most part, though, my quibbles could have been fixed with more attention to detail. The tender pork chop with black-eyed peas and mustard just would have been fantastic had it not been terribly oversalted (too long in the brine?), then severely undercooked to translucent pink. A blackened red snapper was slightly overcooked, but the plate as a whole was so tasty, with truffled grits and creamy fennel-leek and crab ragout, that I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Finesse is not yet in Catahoula's repertoire. But that essential feeling is already in place as Martin pursues ambitions to make his own boudin and smoke his own andouille, to perfect the pickles and fine-tune the house hot sauces.
One thing that's already just right is the pecan pie, each slice of which gets its own touch of dark magic, an ebony drizzle of blackstrap molasses that gives each nutty bite the distinctive Acadian tang of burned cane sugar. Add a bowl of gumbo, some roasted oysters, a fried shrimp po-boy, and I'm as good as back in the bayou.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Argan Moroccan Cuisine. Contact him at email@example.com.