Washington can often seem, as President Kennedy once quipped, like a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm. But a specific slice of the South — Louisiana’s Cajun hotbeds — is coming alive in both alluring and adept fashion at two new local restaurants.
To be sure, Creole cuisine is in the throes of a capital renaissance. Bayou in Foggy Bottom and the Cajun Experience in Adams Morgan join at least a half-dozen other kitchens in the area churning out piquant gumbo and crispy po’boys, but both are elevated to go-to status by their top-notch service and live music lineups.
On that note, while Louisiana standbys anchor both menus, Bayou’s unique presentations and ingredients give its dishes a hipper gloss than its nearby competitor. Think of it as the Holman Experience, the chef unafraid to break the mold via velvety tuna tartare piled high on toasts and mingled with fresh arugula. (Wondering where the Creole comes in? The aioli perking up that fish is made from Tabasco sauce.)
Another rebooted winner at Bayou is the crawfish and Andouille sausage cheesecake, rich as a king cake and powered by nutty smoked Gouda. The macaroni and cheese appears with noodles wider and crisper than your mom likely made but a taste kicked up a notch or two.
The Cajun Experience, meanwhile, is more straightforward but equally charming. Its motto seems to be that no culinary ill can’t be cured by a double dose of calories and care in the kitchen.
Witness a serviceable mac and cheese made irresistible by lumps of succulent crawfish and spices, or the splendidly over-the-top red beans lagniappe. That riff on the Louisiana slang term for “gift with purchase” piles juicy chicken tenders and melted cheese on a spicy, hearty rice-and-sausage concoction.
If you can’t find something to love at the Crosswhites’ local home base, the servers are excellent resources. Hospitable above all — a trait that comes in handy on weekend nights, when orders can emerge garbled or late — the staff is attentive without overselling its wares.
On one visit, when I was talked into a Pimm’s Cup but vowed to make it a lone cocktail, the server received the message and brought refills of water from that moment on. Another occasion found the kitchen agreeing to serve a lunch portion of the rib-sticking, shrimp-studded seafood gumbo, then bringing out an enormous dinner portion and charging me the lower price.
Even skeptics of New Orleans food are likely to succumb to the outdoor patio of the Cajun Experience, where twinkling pearl lights on the broad wooden deck transport diners to the Southern summer night that Washington workdays ought to be. The indoor dining room has its appeal, but tables seeking conversation time on Fridays and Saturdays should head for the patio or adjust to the admittedly catchy beats of live New Orleans music.
Live music is even more prominent at Bayou, where midweek jazz turns to rollicking blues and funk acts bringing the house down from the second floor. For those seeking a quicker bite, the happy hour’s $2 beers and po’boy sliders are easy on the wallet but unavailable from the servers who throng the covered front patio.
Speaking of those po’boys: The submarine sandwiches, served on fluffy yet sturdy French bread and invented in New Orleans to fill workers’ stomachs with a maximum of value, are difficult to bungle for customers who did not grow up on their taste. I found myself giving the edge to Bayou’s jambalaya, where the roux did not mask the taste of the meat and fish inside as much as it did at the Cajun Experience, but any non-Louisianan would be hard-pressed to judge between competing visions of po’boys.
Bayou’s sandwiches do not all come topped with a peppery, creamy blend of mayo and mustard, a treatment that locals abbreviate by saying “dressed,” but the Cajun Experience’s po’boys do. Perhaps because of their drier consistency at the table, Bayou’s fried fish po’boys seem to hold the crunch of their batter better — but for those who prefer a non-fried option, Holman’s barbecue shrimp lack the kick on the palate of the Crosswhites’ blackened shrimp.
The vegetable po’boy is another standout at the Cajun Experience, offering a mélange of simply fried greens rather than the limp green tomatoes on Bayou’s version. Po’boy aficionados are also able to procure only the sandwich at the Cajun Experience, while those dining in are required to order sides at Bayou.
Of course, no finely honed Louisiana palate is necessary to appreciate the region’s cocktails and desserts. On that score, both new kitchens excel; the drink menu at Bayou is heavy on treat-yourself libations just sweet enough to justify ordering two when one would do. The bracing Dark and Stormy and the refreshing Jean Daly, essentially an alcoholic raspberry iced tea, are tops.
At the Cajun Experience, the best choices run more toward the types last ordered at a Mardi Gras blowout, especially the aptly named Hand Grenade and the classic Hurricane. For those seeking a milder taste, the Experience has a surprisingly deep wine list and both restaurants offer Abita’s strawberry beer, a longtime summer favorite down South.
For dessert, the beignets at the Cajun Experience — made with the rightly famous mix sold by the barrel at the French Quarter’s Café du Monde — are delightfully dense and perfect for sharing. At Bayou, few patrons can resist the sumptuous challah-based bread pudding with a liquor-spiked caramel sauce.
No matter how you choose to end the meal, though, consider a hearty “Laissez les bons temps rouler (Let the good times roll)!” Your server and the neighboring tables are likely to send the sentiment right back.
2519 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Hours: Sunday, Tuesday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thursday, 11a.m.-1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Closed Monday.
Prices: Appetizers range from $5 to $14; entrees from $17 to $24. Reservations recommended.
Ideal meal: Green tomato and tuna tartare; roasted beet salad; barbecue pork drumsticks.
THE CAJUN EXPERIENCE
1825 18th St. NW
(202) 558-9230, 670-4416
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-12 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers range from $4 to $12, entrees from $14 to $26. Reservations recommended on weekends.
Ideal meal: Crawfish macaroni and cheese, collard greens, blackened shrimp po’boy, beignets.