Big Easy Does It — French Quarter New Orleans Kitchen

September 2012 View more

NMAG0912_TableForTwo_1Photos by Greg Shapps

With its rich history, lively atmosphere, and signature mélange of music and cuisine, it’s hard to think of a city that conjures a more immediate and profound sense of place than New Orleans, which seems to exist on its own cultural and spiritual plane.

NMAG0912_TableForTwo_2Yet what at first sounds like a golden opportunity for a restaurateur – transplanting the festive, soulful vibe of the Big Easy to another locale – is easier said than done. Many of the things about New Orleans that seem so intoxicating and appealing to visitors, work so well because they’re actually in New Orleans, where things like impromptu street parades and blithe ignorance of open container ordinances—not to mention public nudity—are commonplace. Sure, one might succeed in creating a reasonable facsimile of the ingredients, or the décor, or the music, but capturing the authentic spirit and joie de vivre of the New Orleans experience is a more elusive proposition.

Mardi Gras at the Mall?

It would be overstating things to claim that Belinda Kowal and her crew have completely pulled off that difficult feat with French Quarter, their little slice of New Orleans tucked into the corner of a strip mall on the outskirts of Yorktown Mall in Lombard. But there’s no questioning Kowal’s passion for the town, or her complete dedication to the effort, as we learned on a recent visit during an early-July heat wave that, at least meteorologically speaking, provided an uncomfortably close approximation of a summer night on the bayou.

NMAG0912_TableForTwo_3Kowal’s enthusiasm was as palpable as the elevated dew point as she began by walking us through the drink offerings, pointing out an array of Louisiana-brewed Abita beers and signature New Orleans concoctions like hurricanes and hand grenades. From there we moved on to some of the notable options on the food menu, which undergoes slight alterations every four to six weeks and is divided between small appetizer and large entrée plates. Given some of the intriguing possibilities spread between the two, we found that ordering several choices from across the spectrum to sample and share seemed to be the most prudent strategy.

Sugar and Spice

We got things started with a Creole staple, a generous serving of spicy red beans and rice with two considerable flanks of andouille sausage framing the bowl. It was during this first course that one of the highlights of the evening also made its appearance – the humble breadbasket, which in this case wasn’t so humble at all, holding two killer house-made biscuits—cheddar-jalapeno and corn—alongside rich French butter and a pepper jelly. As we began to load up on these glorious starches with the full meal yet to come, we came to the realization that we’d have to take a regrettable pass on the other enticing appetizer options, including oysters, fried gator, and BBQ shrimp.

NMAG0912_TableForTwo_4Our shared main courses included the soft shell crab, lightly fried and positioned in a UFC-worthy fighting stance, then stuffed with shredded short rib meat – a perplexing choice that nevertheless proved oddly appealing. Another winner was actually a former appetizer that had been expanded and promoted in the last menu shakeup – three plump sea scallops topped with jalapeno vinaigrette and served atop a helping of Anson Mills grits.

Capping a meal like this with a rich, indulgent dessert might have seemed like an act of gluttonous folly elsewhere, but the massive slab of warm pecan pie nestled beneath a blanket of house-made amaretto whipped cream felt entirely appropriate here – or at least appropriately inappropriate, which is probably the kind of aftertaste that any worthwhile trip to the gluttonous folly of New Orleans should inspire, after all.

French Quarter New Orleans Kitchen
44 Yorktown Center, Lombard