Restaurant review: Creole Kitchen

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From the March 1, 2012 edition

On my TV I could see flamboyantly dressed people literally dancing in the streets. They were heavily and unabashedly strung with glittering beads, unsteadily sloshing about with drinks in their hands and gleefully smiling in short sleeves under a magnanimous Louisiana sun. At this faraway and all-out party, the only thing in limited supply was sobriety.

Somberly peeking out my Columbus window onto a lazy, gray and nondescript Tuesday, I gazed longingly back at the wild action beaming onto my television screen and mumbled, “I need to get me some of that.” Fortunately, I knew exactly where to get it, and in less than a half-hour (and for a low amount of dough), my Tuesday suddenly got a whole lot fatter.

Yeah, Mardi Gras happens only once a year (probably a good thing, considering the miserable Ash Wednesday hangovers it engenders), but we can get that genuine, cut-loose New Orleans feeling six days a week right here in Columbus by visiting the excellent Creole Kitchen. Unquestionably one of the best takeout places in town, Creole Kitchen is a gem of a little hole-in-the-wall.

Entering its sixth year of operation, CK is captained by Louisiana bayou native Chef Henry Butcher, who logged three decades of restaurant experience before taking the helm at this locally unique and very special business. Oh, CK’s not much to look at — though constantly bustling, it’s a nearly seatless, counter-ordering joint in an unlovely strip mall. But the real-deal Cajun and Creole grub launched from its premises (in yacht-sized portions but dinghy-sized prices) will leave you with beautiful memories of the Big Easy — even if you’ve never been there.

Here are some favorites. (Note: I always opt for an envelope-pushing 7 out of 10 heat factor, which delivers an authentic Crescent City singeing.)

• Gumbo ($5): Made right with okra and a deep and dark, roux-built, chickeny (and slightly seafoody) broth flaunting a silky texture, there’s simply no better gumbo in Columbus

• Creole wings (6/$3.25) These killer sauceless flappers have a seriously spicy and seriously crispy crust sealing in extremely juicy meat.

• Crawfish Etouffe ($13): A masterpiece and a must! Served with two sides (like sweet and tangy slaw, and homey mac-n-cheese), it’s about a ton of “mudbugs” (good-tasting ones) awash in another powerful roux-based sauce bursting with earthy, minerally and lobster-y flavors. Crunch and yet more depth comes from New Orleans’ famous “holy trinity” (i.e. beloved Louisiana-style mirepoix) of sauteed onion, celery and green peppers.

• Seafood Jambalaya ($13) aka “Seafood Jam,” this spicy bayou-style paella is a reminder that the Spanish predated the French in New Orleans. Arriving in a feeds-four portion (half-priced, half-sized versions are available) is tomatoey rice cooked right and harmoniously imbued with the flavors of embedded (good) shrimp, tiny scallops, crawfish, zingy sausage discs and that Big Easy trinity.

• Red Beans and Rice ($8) — A real rib-sticking dish with rich and partially mashed beans, garlicky and salty seared sausages, nice rice and “piquant sauce” (trinity plus stewed tomatoes), this is a rare Ohio rendition of the New Orleans Monday staple that tastes right.

• Oyster Po Boy ($8) This gotta-have-it-again sandwich stars a barge-load of gloriously fried oysters packed onto an OK, fully dressed toasted roll; comes with terrific, housemade Cajun-spiced chips

• Creole Eggs Benedict ($6) A jazzy reimagining of the classic on biscuits with zesty ham; get it with half-and-half buttery grits and spicy home fries.

• Beignets ($3) Pillowy New Orleans-style doughnuts and a dreamy, powdered-sugar-covered splurge