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What a sad circumstance that Acadiana opened downtown in mid-September, right between the two hurricanes that destroyed much of the region that inspires its Cajun—or, rather, “modern Louisiana”—specialties and drove legions of cooks into diaspora. Those drawn to the humid, mossy mystery of New Orleans and its environs are bound to feel a bit heartsick looking into the deep-bluish murals of bayous on Acadiana’s walls. You can hardly help mulling the catastrophe that rendered these View-Master impressions the closest proxy to the real place that we may be able to enjoy until who knows when.
In the interim, Acadiana isn’t exactly a hardship post. Its reading of Cajun tradition refines the messy informality of backwater culture. The restaurant is posh enough, in fact, to seem slightly full of itself, emphasizing in a recorded voice to callers on hold that it is located in “Washington, D.C.’s, power district.” It’s a little far-fetched, although I am quite sure I saw Gwen Ifill seated in a booth there one night. In any case, who cares? Maybe the chef, Jeff Tunks, does. Acadiana is his fourth style statement in town, after D.C. Coast, TenPenh, and Ceiba. Or maybe the power thing matters to the out-of-town folks coming to the D.C. Convention Center, moored on an opposite corner. Once they get wind of his restaurant, Tunks is going to be busy counting cash.
He has already spent quite a bit on the place, on the theory that less is more expensive. His interior designer, Walter Gagliano, has sublimated the rough textures of Acadian territory into cool fields of aquamarine for the walls and upholstery. Gagliano could easily have gone overboard, but his flourishes are few: a shabby-chic chandelier, some rattan plantation chairs near the bar, the beautiful non sequitur of the onyx counter- and bar tops, lit from below. I spent a good part of one dinner staring into the big, white-framed infinity mirrors above the booths. And then there are those murals.
It doesn’t seem surprising to bring this much South this far north—until the biscuits arrive. Acadiana’s biscuits glow and steam beneath the lights, almost too hot to pick up from the white cloth liner. When you do, they practically open themselves along one of their many layers, and you can smell their slight sweetness even before tasting them. Served with cream cheese and red-pepper jelly, they beg to be devoured on the spot.
But it would be bad not to save some for dredging through the gumbo, that sine qua non of Cajun food, through which Tunks must acquit his whole premise for the restaurant. He does, with a smoky chicken broth and bites of smoked chicken and andouille. The gumbo’s finish is fine rather than chunky, though each spoonful turns up treasure. And it comes in a fairly small bowl, so as not to dull your enthusiasm for the choices ahead.
Among his appetizers, Tunks serves a seared foie gras so sweet you could almost save it for dessert (but don’t—have the crème brûlée and some bourbon), and two small, savory pies—one stuffed with beef and pork, one with crawfish—wrapped in pastry so light it seems spun. Each of a trio of deviled eggs, their yolks whipped into a frosting, holds a different guilty garnish: crabmeat ravigote (seasoned with bay leaves, lemon, salt, and pepper), shrimp remoulade, or choupique caviar. The big surprise of the fried oysters is not the bacon wrapping underneath their corn crusts but the creamy tarragon sauce that encircles them on the plate. By the time you’ve toured through a few of his Cajun standards, Tunks has diverted your palate several times—to herbs, to fruits, to nuts or a cheese you had no reason to expect.
You could certainly expect a better roasted duck, though, as a main course. My duck preferences favor a certain French bistro in town that always serves it tender enough to be removed from the bone in one quick forking. Acadiana’s duck wears a crisp, pan-fried skin, as promised, yet the meat is merely cooked, not cooperative. No complaints about the collard greens—or any greens here. You can live with a little grit in Swiss chard that looks and tastes so alive alongside the red snapper.
The snapper, in particular, tasted dull and oily the first time around, suggesting that, given the convention-center traffic, the food might aspire to a strictly promotional quality—thank you and goodbye. But the second time, the fish seemed entirely delicate and at one with its seasonings, its almond meunière sauce, and especially the nicely spongy disc of sweet-corn pudding served alongside. The crab cakes are generous, the lumps of meat barely bound, and their formidable appearance belies their lightness. OK, so you can get them everywhere in these parts, but not with a relish of mirliton (chayote squash), sweet corn, and tart pickled okra on the side.
Tunks inflects rather than imitates the staples of Cajun cuisine, yet their provenance is deliciously unmistakable, as in the barbecue shrimp and a dish called Aunt Boo’s Fish Camp Crawfish Bisque. The shrimp re-creates the sharp, manly Worcestershire broth found in the French Quarter, which must be stirred into the creamy grits it submerges or mopped up with the requisite hot little baguette your waiter brings you. As for the crawdad-studded bisque, with yet more crawdads in the accompanying hush puppies, it has that epic flavor of something cooked a thousand times without a book. Whoever Aunt Boo is, she knows that, as my friend said, “It’s all about the roux.”
Acadiana, 901 New York Ave. NW, (202) 408-8848.—Bradford McKee
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.