Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mardi Gras in San Jose

You're never too old to celebrate Mardi Gras (Feb. 16). But if your budget (or beads) won't stretch to a trip to New Orleans this year, then head for San Jose's Santana Row and the Roux Louisiana Kitchen. It's a little bit of the Big Easy in Silicon Valley. Tucked on a side street off the main drag in Santana Row, Roux Louisiana is a bold, lively clash of colors (purple and red) and decor, with folk art, photos, and artifacts that would feel right at home in the French Quarter. Off to one side, a stage for weekend live jazz fronts an elliptical, copper-topped bar below a massive, illuminated ceiling sculpture. I can imagine how this place hops at night.

My old college chum Kathy and I are here for lunch and I'm pleasantly surprised that there are so many items on the menu that I could actually eat (I'm notoriously timid about spicy foods). I admit, the closest I've come
to visiting Louisiana is seeing the film "The Pelican Brief" , a pretty good legal thriller with Julia Roberts and dishy Denzel Washington . But I'm told that the name "Roux" refers to the classic, flavor-filled base used in many traditional Louisiana dishes, including the state's quintessential specialty, gumbo.

Of course,
you'll find many of the Creole, Cajun and Soul Food specialties that have made the Pelican state famous here--and these dishes are also famous for their heat. But our waitress is patient about explaining the menu and steering me to less painful choices. I'm on a diet, sort of, so I bypass the list of killer apps, like BBQ shrimp; bacon-wrapped oysters; sautéed crab cakes with roasted pepper aioli, shrimp rémoulade with fried green tomatoes (hey, gotta save something for next time). Lunch combos ($9.95) offer a choice of seafood gumbo, crafish etouffe, fried or salad with an added side (for $4) of pulled pork sliders, fried chicken, chicken strips, or catfish. Instead, we go right for a couple of their signature dishes: Jambalaya (shown below) with andouille sausage for my friend and crawfish etouffe (it's a seasonal dish) with a side of creamy grits for me.

The grits are a surprise--more like a smooth, triple cheese polenta. The etouffe is moderately filled with tiny crawfish (the taste is similar to lobster, but from a much tinier animal). I confess, I practically licked my plate; I love crawfish and you just can't find them at many restaurants. The Jambalaya was filled with chicken, shrimp, onions, tomatoes and moderately spicy sausage, (delish, says Kathy, and a more than ample portion).
For dessert, I'm tempted by the banana Foster bread pudding, but opt instead for the beignets, small doughnut-like concotions covered in powdered sugar and served with hot, chocolate sauce. A pot of hearty, French-press coffee helps further the illusion of a leisurely lunch in the French Quarter (although way too many coffee grounds made their way into my cup). All in all, we give the lunch two thumbs up.

This month, Roux Louisiana Kitchen will celebrate Mardi Gras on Feb. 16 (from 6-9 PM) with a big bash: samples of food/drink, live music, even fire-eaters and bead tossing. Where: 3055 Olin Ave., Suite 1005 (open daily). Reservations 415/249-8000.

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