For sanity's sake, I advise New Orleanians who venture north of Natchez to temper their tastebuds with a device more often used in literature: the suspension of disbelief.
That's because the misunderstood genre of Louisiana cooking invariably morphs into gaudily embellished fiction when practiced in the other 49 states. And it usually breathes voodoo fire and is filled with gimmicky gator.
I learned this the hard way after moving from Louisiana five years ago and eating in "N'awlins"-style restaurants that were more akin to theme parks. Hoping for a taste of real gumbo, I was almost always disappointed.
It was fruitless to expect flavors that I now realize simply don't travel. So I decided to stop being picayunish. I'd go with the flow and refrain from dismantling every ersatz ?touff?e and take the next so-called New Orleans restaurant for what it's worth, even if it is not, and perhaps cannot be, authentic. Good cooking is good cooking no matter what you call it, right?
So, with Mardi Gras coming up Tuesday, Bourbon Blue would be a test.
The first major dining spot to open in downtown Manayunk since the city's five-year moratorium on new restaurants there ended last March, Bourbon Blue has a raucous, almost celebratory atmosphere that is tailor-made for the New Orleans aesthetic.
It is in a historic warehouse (circa 1815) along the Manayunk Canal that was once a mill that supplied cotton for Union uniforms during the Civil War. Most recently, it housed Smith & Hawken, the trendy gardening-supply store. Owner Sean Coyle, who grew up in his family's Binni & Flynn's restaurant business in the Northeast, sensed an opportunity when he was offered the store's lease.
The bilevel space, with its distressed stone walls and open rafters, has just the right moody feel to embrace a bluesy sound track and the requisite wrought-iron accents. When the dining room swells with the unspeakably loud roar of revelry, it feels like a real Bourbon Street watering hole.
But whoever heard of a two-drink limit on Hurricanes, the potent cocktail of bug juice and rocket fuel (Bacardi 151-proof rum) that has sent so many tourists stumbling blearily out of Pat O'Brien's?
That was the first sign of trouble, I suppose. But then there was the food, scattered with frozen crawfish tails, bulk andouille sausage, and that dreaded gator meat . . .
Oops, there I go again!
To his credit, Coyle sent chef Gabriel Hawk to New Orleans for a few months to work in local kitchens and capture the essence of its cuisine. In several dishes, Hawk brought it home.
The catfish fingers were a delicious starter, perfectly fried and served with a spicy remoulade mayonnaise jazzed up with chipotle chilies.
Hawk's cooked oyster sampler was also superb. Oysters Rockefeller were topped with indulgent creamed spinach. Cornmeal-battered fried oysters came slicked with anise-sweetened cream. And the oysters braised with Louisiana-brewed amber Abita beer were topped with strips of chewy bacon and pungent Roquefort cheese.
Other dishes, though, demanded serious disbelief suspension.
The boudin fondue is one of the weirdest foods I've seen, a crock of bubbling Gouda and jack cheese studded with crumbled boudin pork sausage. Any true Southerner would have demanded some biscuits to sop up this odd gravy, but we made do with nacho chips and I actually quite liked it, the richness giving way to shades of smoke and a pique of spice.
The gator quesadilla, a griddled half-moon tortilla filled with tender ground meat and oozing cheese, was another surprising crowd-pleaser.
I also more or less enjoyed the deftly blackened redfish (actually, red drum) with coconut pecan butter, as well as the straightforward catfish, the meaty crabcake filled with crawfish tails, and a delicate grilled trout whose subtleness was enlivened by a cream sauce strewn with crab and sweet pineapple. It was a rich combination that tasted far better than it sounds.
I could not psyche myself up enough, however, to embrace the Bourbon Blue cake, a bizarre fritter of mashed bananas, peaches, brown sugar and crawfish tails embellished with streaks of blueberry sauce and nuggets of Roquefort cheese. It was, unbelievably, worse than it sounds. That kind of dish should never have escaped the privacy of a chef's twilight-sleep musings.
It was a new low for "creative" cooking but indicative of the sweet tooth that dimmed other savory items on the menu. The alligator gumbo was sweet, maybe because the roux was made with butter instead of oil and was too pale to give the stew a rustic gusto.
The huge barbecued shrimp were submerged not in the typical garlic butter, but in a sticky beer gravy laced with so much brown sugar that I may as well have been eating waffles. Even the adobo-rubbed porterhouse steak was masked by a marinade that was jarringly sweet.
Other dishes simply needed a more careful touch. The massive pork chop was tender but dry and overcooked. So was the roasted Cornish hen. The jambalaya was made cheater-style - the rice cooked separately, then topped with seafood and sausage - and it showed in the flavor's lack of depth.
The "homemade" gnocchi had been purchased from an industrial food purveyor, but it didn't matter because they were lost under a tomato gravy overwhelmed by fistfuls of andouille sausage that would have been better used sparingly as an accent.
If you fancy yourself an extreme andouille eater, however, the meat loaf is for you. It's a dense slab with a Cajun kick and a bonus of maque choux, a corn-and-tomato side dish that, to my delight, came authentically complete with okra.
There were some decent desserts, from an Oreo cheesecake to a chocolate mousse velvet cake, pecan pie, and deep-fried bananas with caramel improperly dubbed "Foster." (Real bananas Foster are flamb?ed in butter, brown sugar and rum.)
But by 10 p.m. that Friday, our table had been swallowed up in a sea of youths wearing belly rings and stretch pants and faux fur who had been pouring into the downstairs dining room to hear the live band. My ears were throbbing and my voice was hoarse from shouting to my guests across the table.
We stopped talking altogether when one jersey-clad dude hoisted his glass and brought the restaurant to a table-rattling, full-throated chant: