May 31, 2010

Cafe Roux: A New Cajun Option (For Now)

Restaurant: Cafe Roux
Location: 11554 Ash Street, Leawood, KS (Town Center Plaza)
Food: Cajun classics with an upscale flair
Service: Pleasant, not special
Price: Unexpectedly reasonable for a classy place
Rating: two  napkins

It's a little difficult to find good Cajun food north of the Mason-Dixon. Most cities have one or two decent Cajun restaurants but not a plethora of choices. Kansas City is no different (see this Fat City link back on Fat Tuesday in which a local chef laughs at the selection here in town). Recently, though, my friend Tyson, a fellow New Orleans food lover, surprised me with a new option as we were texting back and forth, trying to figure out where to go on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend : Cafe Roux at Town Center. Game over. Reservations at 8:00.

Would Cafe Roux have a better run than the likes of The Red Vine? Based on the size of the "crowd" when we arrived, the outlook is not good, as the ol' eight ball says. But it was a beautiful Saturday night on what may be the biggest grilling weekend of the entire year. So perhaps these factors coupled with our tardiness (seated at 8:30 - is that late?) made Cafe Roux's business (or lack thereof) appear to be less successful than it normally is. Whatever the case, it was nearly deserted. I was worried.

After much deliberation about where to sit (too much freedom!), we went with a street-side outdoor table. A great choice. The echo-y, climate controlled, sparkling clean dining room just didn't seem appropriate for our Cajun affair. True, the streets at Town Center are about clean enough to eat off of - certainly not the endearingly grungy southern bayou setup you find at Jazz and most other Cajun-themed joints - but the slight humidity and fresh air helped. So did the food.

The menu was quite small, but contained just enough of the classics to please those of us who knew what we had come for.  As we pondered what to order, I hailed a spicy martini (Cajun-tini?), made simply with Absolut Peppar and vermouth, garnished with an ingenious skewer of two green olives stuffed with pickled jalapenos. I enjoyed it so much, I look forward to purchasing the ingredients needed to make my own and consuming them the rest of the summer. Elizabeth got some nutty concoction containing every kind of juice Dole makes and a spritz of some type of booze. I skeptically tried a bit and found it to be just as I had expected - spiked fruit punch. No thanks. (But undoubtedly refreshing.)

For dinner we settled on splitting several things, ordering up the crawfish boil, crawfish etouffee and "green" redfish. We each added a $3 cup of gumbo, too, as a starter, which was brought to the table accompanied by four mini baguettes, perfect for mopping up sauces the rest of the night. The gumbo was the shining star of the evening... hot, moderately spicy, and rich but not too thick. There was rice included in the bowl but not too much, which allows the soup's flavors to shine and speaks to the chef's opinion of his dish. As I picture my return to Cafe Roux, I debate whether I might go for a bowl, a side of grits, and just mop it all up with the delicious french bread. A more delicious and affordable dinner would be hard to come by anywhere.

The crawfish boil was as should be expected. Simply boiled four to five inch long crawfish came in a big bowl with some large, skin-on boiled potatoes and half cobs of corn, all swimming in a murky natural jus.

The flavors were all there. This was the classic crawfish boil, lacking nothing. It may have been slightly more enjoyable served by some guy named Boudreaux out of a smoldering pot behind his withered swamp shed in the hazy heat of a N'awlins night, but that's about the only improvement I can think of. Salty juice went streaming down my hands and writs each time I cracked another open from the bountiful portion we were served, and I enjoyed slurping and sucking at the shells in attempts to extract as much flavor as possible from the meaty tail and juicy head. A key to the potatoes: I made sure to split mine open in the broth, like a matzoh ball, so they'd soak up as much moisture and flavor as possible. The corn, too, benefited from the naturally briny cooking liquid, needing no extra salt or butter.

The etouffee was slightly fancier than those I've had before. It was apparently heavy on the tomatoes - bright red in color and containing a noticeable tang from the acidity. The texture of the etouffee, too, was fancy, in a delightful way. Etouffees I've had before have all been somewhat thick and creamy from the richness of the butter-laden roux. This one was a little chunkier - less congealed - and its celery, peppers and onion still had a little bite to them, which was nice. The texture was a plus in this version of one of my favorites in the genre. The crawfish content in the dish was plentify, too, which was a huge plus. Often, the crawfish in an etoufee can be impossible to locate. Cafe Roux clearly takes pride in their generous allotment.

The "green" redfish, perhaps, would have been better had I not eaten it last. I think that during the time I spent dismantling crawfish from the boil, it lost its delicacy. The hearty fish seemed a tad overcooked - pretty dang solid and hard to cut with a fork's edge. And the bed of rice sweetened naturally with the corn's cream had lost its temperature in the breezy evening air, seeming more like a leftover dish straight out of the fridge than a nice seafood accompaniment. I could easily tell, though, that had this been my entree of choice, it would have been perfectly satisfying eaten piping hot, straight out of the kitchen. The ample sweet corn kernel salad mounded on top of the meat added a pleasant juiciness and complimentary sweetness to the dish, bringing all the flavors together. I'd guess that the vast majority of patrons who order the "green" redfish would be perfectly happy with it. 

Were I able to go back in time (or perhaps on my next trip), the shrimp and grits would be a sure bet for me. I'm anxious to try their version which, at $16, was one of the (surprisingly) pricier options on the menu. That speaks to Cafe Roux's prices overall, though, which I found to be incredibly reasonable, given the relatively upscale atmosphere (compared to Jazz) and gourmet bent of the menu.

No regrets, though. We loaded up on some tasty classics that satisfied a hunger in my belly not satiated since our trip to New Orleans almost a year ago. In summary: Cafe Roux was Johnson-County-does-Cajun, and pretty good at that. I'd certainly recommend it and I look forward to going back and sampling the menu further.

Rating: two napkins

Cafe Roux on Urbanspoon

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