By Jeff Dufour - 10/06/05 12:00 AM EDT
The timing of Acadiana’s opening, not quite four weeks ago, was either perfectly opportune or perfectly dreadful, depending on whom you ask.
According to Chef Jeff Tunks, who is also behind Ten Penh, DC Coast and Ceiba, some people have asked how he could celebrate the opening of the Louisiana-themed restaurant amid so much pain and devastation in that region.
But he looks at it a different way. “We’re carrying the torch … still showcasing products” from the region, he said.
Apparently, most local diners agree with him. In its third week, Acadiana was No. 1 in local bookings on Opentable.com, the online reservation service. Tunks said the restaurant has already booked wedding receptions that had to be relocated from the Gulf Coast. And the Po’ Boy Power fundraiser the restaurant held Sept. 12 for disaster relief raised more than $27,000 in two hours.
Tunks points out that Acadiana was a year and a half in the making before the hurricane hit. As with his other restaurants, which he owns and operates with restaurateurs David Wizenberg and Gus DiMillo, the opening was long preceded by a “research” trip.
“We ate and drank our way through southern Louisiana,” Tunks said, not only sampling the best of the cuisine but also lining up products from the region’s best purveyors of rice, bread and seafood.
With the exception of oysters, they’re still serving primarily Louisiana ingredients, like Leidenheimer bread for the three different po’ boys — barbecue shrimp, oyster and roast beef — on the lunch menu.
Tunks, who was chef at New Orleans’s Windsor Court Hotel for three years, takes care to point out that the cuisine isn’t simply New Orleans or even Cajun, but rather like pan-Gulf Coast. He differentiates the city’s cuisine from that of Acadiana proper, a collection of about 20 parishes in the Southwest part of the state. For instance, you generally won’t find okra or tomato in western versions of gumbo (although there is some tomato here).
And Acadian food generally utilizes less hot spice than Creole cooking. Take the smoked-chicken and andouille-sausage gumbo, one of three soups served in a sampler. It was quite tame compared to other versions of the dish.
Oysters Rockefeller soup arrived as a unique pur�e of brie, spinach and Pernod, with plump, juicy oysters floating (OK, sinking) in the thick, rich soup.
But the best is by far the turtle soup (yes, made with real snapping turtles). An impossibly rich brown base is home to turtle meat, tomatoes and a splash of sherry. If you’re walking past on a brisk day, belly up to the bar and get yourself a bowl of this.
While you’re at it, try one of the New Orleans-inspired cocktails, such as the bourbon fizz with praline liqueur, peach nectar and Woodford Reserve bourbon; a Sazerac, made with rye whiskey, bitters and herb saint; or yes, even a hurricane, made with fresh passion fruit and watermelon juices.
But I digress. You’d expect oysters to find their way onto the menu here, and you’d be right. Three kinds, in fact: iced on the half-shell, baked oysters and artichoke gratin and charbroiled oysters with Parmesan, garlic and French bread.
The duo of pies — Natchitoches meat pies with buttermilk pepper sauce and crawfish pies — are little more than empanadas, and surprisingly simple and bland; they’re not worth filling up on.
For something lighter, try one of the two tomato appetizers. Fried green tomatoes come topped with greens, remoulade sauce and — a nice touch — sliced Gulf shrimp.
The heirloom-tomato salad with pimento cheese crisp is something like a Southern bruschetta: bright red, perfectly fresh tomatoes topped with greens and sugar-cane vinaigrette, with a cheesy crostini on the side.
Press materials bill Acadiana as a “Louisiana fish house,” and the entrees are appropriately heavy on seafood.
Among the best are a grouper crusted with sweet onions and andouille sausage and served with spicy sweet-potato hash and green-onion butter, and a perfectly blackened tuna with creamed spinach.
Some of the elements on the menu lack the flavorful punch you might expect from this region’s cuisine, spicy or not. The bland grit souffl� with the blackened tuna did little more than provide a foundation for the fish.
“Aunt Boo’s Fish Camp” crawfish stew, named after a relative of Pastry Chef David Guas, falls surprisingly flat, despite the buttery crawfish hush puppies on the side.
You’re better off with the zesty crawfish �touff�e on the lunch menu. For something completely different, try the Lake Pontchartrain-style fried catfish — ultra-thin slices of fish, dredged in cornmeal and flash fried with smoked tomato tartar sauce.
Guas, who has won several accolades for his desserts at the group’s other restaurants, comes up aces again here. You’ll find traditional New Orleans favorites all dressed up. Think bananas Foster crepes, or light, pillowy beignets with a chicory coffee pot de cr�me in which to dip ’em.
Like the group’s other restaurants, this one is designed by David Gagliano. The 225-seat room in a brand-new building in between the new and old convention centers isn’t quite what you’d expect. Not that that’s a bad thing. Gagliano avoids the over-the-top opulence of a New Orleans hotel and steers clear of forced roadside rusticity. The result is almost understated: neutral colors mostly, with nice touches such as oak flooring and two crescent banquettes in the middle of the room.
Overall, this is a much-needed slice of the bayou in downtown D.C., at a much-needed time.
901 New York Ave. N.W.
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.
Prices: Moderately expensive; appetizers $7-14, lunch entrees $12-$26; dinner entrees $20-$27.
Valet parking, $6.
Ratings: Up to five domes awarded based on reviewer’s judgment.
Three and a half domes