Good Cajun and creole food is about as rare in Houston as a mild day in August. So it's not surprising that when Mary Hodge and her husband, William, moved here from New Orleans, they found all the local Louisiana-style restaurants lacking.
So they decided to open one of their own, one that would re-create the textures and flavors they loved. And they succeeded: The food at the Hodges' new downtown Opelous Café can stand head-to-head with some of the best New Orleans has to offer.
The restaurant itself has a large, open and half-finished feel, not atypical of a New Orleans restaurant. It opened in March, serving lunchtime take-out, but is now seating diners for lunch and dinner. At first I found it ominous that Opelous offers live jazz during Friday lunches and Friday and Saturday evenings. Live music in restaurants makes me a bit nervous; I always have a sneaking suspicion that the music is there to distract me from the quality of the food.
But that's definitely not the case here. Executive chef Michael Cadore brings French training and 18 years of cooking experience, while his sous chef, Diane Hunt, worked for years in restaurants in Baton Rouge. Together they show a dynamite combination of classic technique and a native-born love for the food and its spicing.
You see that combo right off the bat, with the appetizer boudin balls ($8.99). The housemade sausage is rolled into balls, then breaded and fried to a greaseless crisp. The boudin exhibits lots of spice and heat, and lacks the liverlike aftertaste that many people hate about the stuff. But what lifts the dish to the level of high cuisine is the roasted red-pepper chili sauce, a smooth, elegant affair just right for dipping.
Crab cakes ($7.99) exhibit similar finesse. Lump crabmeat, spiced just enough to bring out its sweetness, is panfried with a breading so delicate it barely holds the cake together. A marvelous mango chutney gives the dish an Indian accent not traditional Louisiana by a long shot, but definitely delicious.
My table split on the seafood gumbo ($4.95 per cup). It's cooked with a dark roux, not too thick, with lots of seafood and enough heat to render extra hot sauce unnecessary. It was heavy on the filé, though, which adds a touch of bitterness. I thought it was delicious: If necessary, a pinch of salt would counterbalance the filé nicely.
Seafood reigns supreme at Opelous Café, and two entrées vie for best-in-show honors. I loved the snapper Ponchartrain ($21.99), an eight-ounce fillet sautéed and topped with a delicate white-wine cream sauce and lots of crabmeat and shrimp. But I'd give the edge to the pecan-crusted trout Bienville ($20.99). The gutsy piece of fish stands up beautifully to its nutty crust and a spicier version of the white-wine cream sauce; it's also garnished with crabmeat and shrimp. Both dishes are house specialties, which come with a good salad (try the spicy ranch dressing) and a marvelously earthy dirty rice.
Barbecued shrimp ($14.99) also merit your consideration. Large, beautiful shrimp, still in their shells, bask in a lake of New Orleans-style barbecue sauce, a heady mix of butter (lots of butter), lemon, white wine and spices. If you're afraid of butter, you should stay away. But I didn't leave a drop on my plate.
Decision-making isn't one of my strong suits, so I was glad to see an étouffée combination plate ($14.99): half-shrimp, half-crawfish. The seafood is smothered in a rich, dark brown sauce, spicy in the way Cajun things should be. I alternated bites of shrimp and crawfish, trying to decide which I liked better. Even after cleaning my plate, I still hadn't decided.
After all that heat and spice, you're going to want something sweet for dessert. The bread pudding ($6.99) was good: a dense, cinnamon-scented block, served with a warm rum sauce. The flaky-crusted lime pie ($6.99) was even more satisfying, a perfect citric balance to the rich food it follows.
As a former resident of New Orleans, I consider it my duty to act as the Cajun food police, and I've issued more than my share of citations. It was a pleasure to take off my badge and enjoy a great meal.
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