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New Orleans cuisine ranges from the rarefied to the rusticated, from eight-course banquets at four-star restaurants to squirrel-head pot pie. (A recipe for the latter in Mary Land’s classic Louisiana Cookery, if memory serves, includes instructions on killing the main ingredient.)
The brand of Cajun cooking that migrated north from Louisiana to fashionable urban precincts in the ’80s is neither rarefied nor truly rustic, but somewhere in between. At a northern Cajun-style restaurant, repertory dishes such as popcorn shrimp and crawfish étouffée are as reliably found as hot-and-sour soup and kung pao chicken at your local Szechwan joint. Lex Cajun Grill, owned by chef Lek Saengplai, who ran Alexandria’s Cajun Bangkok before moving his operation to Woodley Park, is a slightly upscale version of this species. The only nods to the restaurant’s Thai heritage are the Singha beer and the indifferent side salad of iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots that accompanies some entrees.
Skip the Singha and order an Abita, a crisp, hoppy lager that, of everything in the place, most precisely recalls the taste of Louisiana. Otherwise there is not all that much to recommend this neighborhood restaurant, where a dinner for two with drinks, dessert, and tip will set you back about $100. Admittedly, my first visit may have caught the staff itching to close. Though the restaurant is open for dinner until 11 on Friday and Saturday, my companion and I were the last customers to arrive on a recent Friday night at 9:30. By 10 minutes past 10, our plates were cleared and our check summarily dropped without so much as an offer of coffee or dessert.
We had started with okra gumbo, presented in the New Orleans style—a mound of white rice atop a bowl of broth, crawfish, healthy chunks of andouille, and slices of crisp, unslimy okra. The broth lacked the heft of the traditional gumbo thickened with a roux of oil and flour. Though I could detect the flavor of chicken broth and the savory herbs of the andouille, it was the heavy spike of black pepper that dominated. The crawfish were unpleasantly fishy, a little tough, and without their signature sweetness. An appetizer of cornmeal-coated popcorn crawfish was served with a bland imitation of the mustard-mayo-cayenne remoulade made famous by Paul Prudhomme.
An entree of jambalaya could have used a few jolts of Tabasco—a condiment oddly absent from Lex’s tables. Again, the crawfish was fishy, although the andouille was nice: Mild at first bite, it finished with a nice kick of hot pepper. Less appetizing was an entree special called Bourbon Shrimp: a plate of jumbo-sized crustaceans overcooked into unrecognizable lumps under a gluey, yellow cream sauce.
The airy, high-ceilinged dining room was comparatively busy on a subsequent visit, yet the service was less hurried and the food more deftly turned out. New Orleans clam chowder is white like its New England cousin, but thinner; a firm dice of potatoes contrasted nicely with the soft, salty flesh of the baby clams. Shrimp étouffée arrived nearly submerged in a buttery meat gravy, velvety and delicious; but the jumbo shrimp, though expertly cooked this time, were oddly flavorless. A special of batter-fried catfish fillet served with crawfish Creole paired the flaky fish with a savory sauce of fish stock flavored with tomatoes, onions, garlic, pepper, and a healthy allotment of crawfish—sweeter and firmer than on the first visit.
Lex is a pleasant enough place to linger over chicory coffee and dessert, although there are those who would find murals romanticizing rural poverty in the Old South to be tacky, impolitic, or worse. But there’s pecan pie, served cold and with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. And a crème custard is excellent, its rich eggy outer layer concealing a soft, rich center. For what it’s worth, both are finished Emeril-style, on a plate drizzled with chocolate syrup and adorned with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and a sprig of fresh mint. It’s the kind of detail that makes me wonder if Saengplai wouldn’t be better off ditching the overpopularized version of New Orleans cuisine and taking another stab at Thai-Cajun fusion.
Lex is best appreciated during daylight hours. The floor-to-ceiling front window affords a view of the bustling foot traffic on Connecticut Avenue, and the lunch menu offers smaller, less expensive portions of the Cajun entrees, as well as burgers, a “Carolina” pork-barbecue sandwich, and a host of po’ boys—although not, astonishingly, an oyster po’ boy, which is to New Orleans what the pastrami on rye is to New York. The crab cake is a good choice, succulent lump crabmeat fried golden brown and served on a seeded bun with lettuce, tomato, and a solitary slice of bread-and-butter pickle. It goes well with a cold Abita or two, even better eaten at one of Lex’s sidewalk tables on a warm weekend afternoon. The experience is as much Chesapeake Bay as it is Mississippi Delta, but it’s a $20 lunch that’s worth the trip.
Lex Cajun Grill, 2608 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 745-0015.—
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