Reviewing a New Orleans-style restaurant is as risky as reviewing a barbecue joint. Devotees of both are fanatical and "authenticity" is always a big issue. Taste can be great, but if the fanatic doesn't detect the perfect amount of file, if the roux is not just right or if the piquancy is not sufficient, the complaining is ear-splitting. The arguments can be annoying but they are also part of what stimulates and maintains discrete culinary cultures.
With New Orleans' culinary culture blown apart by Hurricane Katrina and the city's chefs fanning out across the country, Cajun and Creole cooking is undergoing a kind of dislocated renaissance. As it happens, the owner of the new Tres P's (245 N. Highland Ave., 404-880-0881) relocated here well before Katrina to do private catering, exclusively for the pharmaceutical industry. The drug industry's loss is our gain.
The new restaurant is a delight -- an "evolving one," in our server Troy's description -- and it's as quirky as anything out of New Orleans should be. You could start with the hours. I tried to eat at the restaurant three times at different hours before I found it open; the hours were even scratched off the door. But it seems to have settled into an 11 a.m.-8 p.m. schedule, closed on Mondays. The cafe, with pale-green and burnt-orange walls and a scattering of tables for two, some with purple tablecloths, has a comfy bar where you can dine and stare into the kitchen. Tres P's is selling a few New Orleans culinary products and catering is available.
The food, by and large, is very good in my opinion but I have confessed, to the horror of my readers, that I have never been a huge fan of NOLA cooking, at least not the fancier styles. Tres P's, though, is serving the basics and reminds me a bit of the old Gumbo-a-Go-Go, whose loss I'm still mourning. The food here is a bit more complex and a bit pricier too, but worth every penny.
My favorite dish so far -- and my favorite New Orleans dish, period -- is the etouffee, made with shrimp. At the risk of sounding like a whining fanatic, my two samples of it have found the sauce just a mite thin, but it is otherwise perfect to my taste. The quantity of shrimp, plump and juicy, makes the $13.95 price seem low. But how is it that on another night I ordered jambalaya, a special with nearly as many shrimp, and it was only $5.95? It was served in two mounds the size of ice cream scoops and the cook, apparently thinking I'd be underfed, added some sauteed yellow squash and onions on the side at no charge. Readers will find the jambalaya controversial. I absolutely loved it. It was a lightly sauced version but intensely flavorful and spicy with chunks of fresh tomato and bits of andouille sausage complementing the shrimp.
Soups are savory and far more flavorful than the average around town. A special of chicken, duck and andouille gumbo was a meal in itself. I also like the regular cream-of-red-bean soup, enlivened with bits of smoked turkey and chopped scallions the night I had it. I haven't managed to hit the restaurant when the seafood gumbo was available.
The only disappointment so far has been the po' boys. I'm not talking about the fried catfish, shrimp, oysters or sausage they contain, but the bread. It looks beautiful but is almost achingly chewy, not a pleasant effect with al dente fried seafood. I'm going to blame the humidity, but, if I'm wrong, the restaurant needs to make a change.
There are no house-made desserts, and the rest of the food has been too good for me to risk dessert when, for the same money, I could have a plate of red beans and rice. The menu also includes fried pork chops and seafood platters, which I have not tried.
The staff is convivial. The owner speeds around calling every diner "darlin'" and fusses over your every bite, offering to add ingredients here and there. I truly hope the restaurant finds the patronage it deserves.
Up the road
I had a spectacular lunch at Fritti (309 N. Highland Ave., 404-880-9559). Fair disclosure: Owner Ricardo Ullio knows me and insisted I try menu items added by his new chef from Naples, Antonio Bianco. (Please don't write me 50 e-mails, saying I should not disclose my identity to restaurateurs. There's not a critic in town who isn't recognized by someone; I just happen to think it should be admitted.)
My friends Will Bonner and Brian Cohn joined me in feasting on a delicate eggplant Parmesan, shrimp fried in a tempura-like batter with orange zest and fried lemon slices and fluffy potato croquettes stuffed with mozzarella and bits of rosemary. Most compelling of all was an off-the-menu Naples-style pizza, made thicker than the usual thin ones at the restaurant. The kitchen is using a new flour and rather than becoming particularly chewier in its thicker version, the crust was velvety and billowy. It was classically topped with cherry tomatoes, basil and bufala. I crave it several times a week and hope it is added to the menu soon.
On top of this we ate three more pizzas and a new dessert, a semi-freddo that married flavors of orange, almond and pistachio.
By the way, Ricardo is opening a new Spanish restaurant at the corner of Juniper and Eighth streets. He will also open, next door to it, a Portuguese juice bar that will feature raw foods as well as juices.
Atlanta, mysteriously, lacks an authentic Spanish restaurant. The few attempts at Spanish restaurants have rarely featured the cuisine the Spanish actually eat. The new restaurant, whose opening has been delayed until March by the usual problems, will feature a menu of traditional dishes, including some paellas that Atlantans will likely find esoteric.
I can't wait!