Cajun and Creole catching attention coast to coast

Cajun and Creole catching attention coast to coast – cuisine of New Orleans

Richard Martin

LOS ANGELES — Reaching for a cooling glass of water after having downed a forkful of Cajun jambalaya at the high-grossing Ritz Cafe here, the customer managed a smile while small beads of sweat formed on his brow.

“It’s hot. But it’s good,” he said, somewhat flushed.

Hot and good. More than just a restaurant patron’s critique of the increasingly popular regional Cajun and Creole cuisine of New Orleans, this assessment seems to echo the sentiments of an increasing number of operators about a concept that can deliver a spicy profit along with a pungent bowl of gumbo.

But, like roses and thorns, every crawfish has its claws. “Spice resistance” in noncosmopolitan markets and costly commodity supply lines from the Louisiana bayous for those distant operations intent on maintaining Cajun-Creole authenticity are but two of the logistical hurdles that managers of such restaurants must get across.

From coast to coast the solid success of some Cajun-Creole restaurants outside the Deep South has inspired their owners to think of expansion and has bred new entrepreneurial ventures by others who have similar menu concepts.

The large food-service conglomerates are also rumored to be eyeing Cajun-Creole as one of the next exploitable trends for possible proliferation.

Popeyes’ founder, Al Copeland, has his sights set on San Franciso and New York as new homes for his Copeland’s of New Orleans Cajun American Cafe dinnerhouse concept, which currently has three units in Louisiana.

Mean while Paul Prudhomme, chef and owner of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans, continues to lead the Cajun-Creole “movement” by virtue of his Cajun heritage, the pre-eminent reputations of his restaurant and cookbook, and the evident demand for his high-priced menu consultations.

But Prudhomme–acclaimed as he is by other Cajun-Creole practitioners–is not the only proponent of the genre who is meeting with huge success.

In Los Angeles the five-month-old, 150-seat Ritz Cafe is doing anywhere from 2-1/2 to four table turns a night on its way to an estimated $3.5 million in first-year sales–making it one of the hottest new restaurants to open there this year.

Owner Sam Du Vall, an accomplished 17-year restaurant veteran based in San Francisco, plans to launch another Ritz next spring near the Empire State Building in New York (where a flourishing, five-year-old operation like Cajun in the Chelsea District has opened up the local market). Du Vall also plans to open two more Ritz cafes in the Los Angeles area by the end of next year.

In San Franciso the three-year-old Elite Cafe’s co-owners, Tom Clendening and Rahim Talai, enjoy the $20 average tabs racked up by the nearly 275 covers they turn each night in their 75-seat Cajun-Creole establishment.

Buoyed by the Elite’s success, Clendening and Talai are opening the 100-seat Dixie Cafe in mid-December on Columbus Avenue, where they will continue to offer the spicy, cast-iron-pan-blackened fish and steak specialties ala Prudhomme, along with the gumbos, jambalaya, raw-bar items and Creole-style entrees typical of such menus.

“The nice thing about this food,” Clendening says, “is that everbody’s getting ‘California’d out’ [by Chez Panisse-style knockoffs of the California cuisine movement]. We see people going from white wine and salads back to steaks and Scotch.”

Across San Franciso Bay, the people of Alameda County have also embraced the Cajun-Creole style, as interpreted in restaurants like Lombard’s, Grit’s and the Gingerbread House. At Lombard’s in Oakland, chef-owner Stanley Jackson, a former Culinary Olympics medalist who was Prudhomme’s original sous chef at K-Paul’s features such imported-from-Louisiana items as pompano, redfihs, alligator and red-hot tasso ham on a menu he changes completely twice each week.

The newest West Coast entry into the Cajun-Creole arena also intends to reap benefits from an association with Prudhomme, as well as from the advance cultivation of curious local palates by the nearby Ritz Cafe. Orleans, opened in West Los Angels earlier this month by owner Jake Ptasznik, offers a menu crafted by its chef, K-Paul alumnus Tom Blower, and Prudhoome.

Though Ptasznik admits it was expensive to employ Prulhomme as a menu consultant over the course of several months (Pruhomme’s fees reportedly run as much as $1,000 a day), he thinks the consultation (and the concomitant deal to use only Prudhomme’s pepper-rich “magic” spice blends) will get Orleans off to a healthy start.

“The only worry I have,” Ptasznik says, “is those who bill themselves as Cajun-Creole and then don’t do a good job of it”–thus alienating potential customers from his place. Another concern might be the average $40 airfreight bill that he pays for every 100-lb. food shipment he receives from Louisiana. Given Ptasznik’s commitment to use genuine redfish and other authentic products, he must continue to absorb the cost.

But Du Vall, while agreeing that raw materials can be a stumbling block for Cajum-style restaurants, thinks adherence to Prudhomme’s specification for the costlier “true” redfish from Gulf Coast waters will handicap Orleans in competing with his operation.

“I think it’s a mistake,” Du VAll says. “We use West Coast fish, and we find it doesn’t make much difference. They [Orleans] can’t sell redfish for $9.95.” Compared with Orleans’ price of $11.25 for “true” blackened redfish, the Ritz charges under $10 for its best-sellig “Cajun Blackfish.”

“But Phil Larimore, the Ritz’s general manager, says, “if you’re trying to be authentic, you have to bite the bullet once in a while.”

COPYRIGHT 1984 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group