Chef Henry Butcher brings a taste of New Orleans to his Near East Side eatery
For more than a decade, chef Henry Butcher — a leading local light of Louisiana-style cuisine — made do with a bare-bones operation consisting of a miniscule dining area with all the comfort and charm of a BMV office. That changed a couple months ago when the bayou-raised chef opened a full-fledged restaurant next door to his spare-but-beloved, takeout-oriented shop.
Mardi Gras masks and colors welcome visitors to the addition onto Chef Butcher's Creole Kitchen. So do lively red and yellow walls, brash music-themed paintings, a concrete floor, a small bar that doesn't serve alcohol (I was told that booze service might be imminent) and jazzy tunes. Occasionally, local jazz bands animate the place's two rooms, which are colorfully appointed but otherwise as brightly lit and casual as a diner.
While perusing the rather confusingly organized menu — it groups old favorites from the takeout shop with dishes cooked specifically for the new eatery — I was gifted with herb-and-chili-spiked, slightly sweet house Creole Chips. They tasted great, especially the warm and crisp ones.
Delving into Creole Kitchen's homey classics, my chicken, andouille and crab Gumbo du jour ($8 for a huge bowl) was disappointingly light in the okra and crab departments, but the mahogany-colored, medium-bodied broth was heavy on deep, rich, nuanced and delicious flavors. And the irresistibly garlicky, lemony, creamy and pungent house dressing won me over as I dug into an eccentric Caesar Salad ($5) with marinated mushrooms, hard-cooked eggs and tomato.
Chicken Andouille Jambalaya ($13) is another recommended chef Butcher mainstay. Rustic, tomato-y and on the soupy side, its skillful integration of celery, onion, green pepper and spices such as thyme and cayenne pepper is a hallmark of real-deal Louisiana cooking.
If seeking a sandwich, you can't beat the (irony alert) mammoth and rich Shrimp Po'boy ($12), a perfectly toasted, baguette-type roll positively loaded with crisply battered, good-tasting shrimp and all the proper, sub-style fixins. Like the other four po' boys offered, it's served with prefab, but not bad, fries.
Alternate sides with scratch-cooked appeal include earthy-yet-aromatic red beans and rice; rich and tangy macaroni and cheese; cabbage and onions griddled until dark-edged, sweet and delicious; and creamy cole slaw brightened by vinegar.
Slaw, fries and zippy remoulade sauce come on the side of a deeply comforting dish only available in the newer digs: the imposing fried Seafood Platter ($19). Big and brown like a pitcher's mound, it's the kind of comically immense meal that often comes with an award for the heroic eaters able to finish it.
Along with those aforementioned sides, plus a little grilled andouille sausage, the feast includes sublime cornmeal-battered catfish nuggets plus a preponderance of thickly breadcrumb-battered water critters: shrimp (plump, butterflied), tiny scallops, crawfish, minerally oysters, peppery frog legs (taste like chicken) and alligator planks (see frog legs).
Another pricey new entree I sampled is another winner, albeit a far more restrained dish: the Catfish Dinner ($18). A tender fillet arrives lightly blackened and effectively sauced with flavorful crawfish etouffee that delivers a nice little cayenne kick. Red beans and soft, herbed-and-spiced “dirty rice” are served on the side.
Ambition exceeded execution in another relatively fancified new creation called Chicken Antoinette ($15). Characteristically for this place, the flavors were delightful. But despite a fine marsala wine sauce, the grilled chicken roulade stuffed with Tasso, andouille and not much gorgonzola cheese was extremely dry — and a garlic-buttered veggie medley arrived cool and limp.
Fortunately, an order of New Orleans-worthy Beignets ($3 for six) — puffy, crisp and addictive doughnut-like fried pastries showered in powdered sugar — were able to reignite that Mardi Gras-style spirit best described as “Laissez les bon temps rouler!”