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Openings Fri Oct 25 2013

Creole Meets Nightclub @ Nouveau Tavern

Nouveau Tavern, the new Cajun/Creole concept to join River North, opened softly recently in preparation for an official Halloween opening. As a Cajun, you can imagine that I damn near crapped myself when I saw the below interior attached to the phrase Cajun/Creole -- these type of places only happen to me when I've had too many cosmos and am wearing four inch heels.

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The first thing you'll notice about Nouveau Tavern is the interior. They can thank D+K Architects, (Enclave, Cuvee and District) for transforming a former sushi space into something that borders on a Chicago nightclub and a swampy, dirty south lounge. The atmosphere is sexy yet mellow with a design palette that's a little bit of Mardi Gras, a little bit of voodoo and a lot of see and be seen. Which may be the biggest thing Nouveau has going for them right now.

First things first. Nouveau isn't Cajun. It's Creole and southern inspired. So "creole/southern" would be a better label. (While Creole and Cajun share many similarities, there are distinct differences between the two cultures.)

The menu is a mix of Creole standards and American classics with a homage to French. Starting off with the Bayou Wings, $12 (honey, sambal, crème fraîche, blue cheese) or the BBQ Shrimp, $15 (grilled shrimp served over cornbread pancakes with crème fraiche, scallions, and bbq sauce), will not be a bad move. The wings had a nice sweet/spicy kick and crunchy texture to them and they didn't disappoint my growing wing interest. But sambal is a spicy southeast Asian condiment, so I'm not sure what made the wings "bayou" beyond the fact that they had spice and that somehow, spice has become the precursor to calling something Cajun/Creole. It's not, neither is blackening it. The BBQ shrimp included three jumbo shrimp on top of a thin cornbread pancake with a touch of barbecue sauce. Overall, a good bite and the crème fraîche was a nice touch -- the right blend of what would happen on a plate if low-country and creole had a baby.

IMG952011.jpgIf you want to judge any place on its ability to stand behind a Cajun/Creole name, you either get their gumbo or their étouffée. If they are good at what they do, these two things should not just taste good, they should blow your mind if you are not familiar with Cajun/Creole cuisine. In the southern vernacular, they should "make you wanna slap ya' mama."

Since I was there to see if Nouveau actually knew what they were doing or were just borrowing off of cultural equity to make a concept work, I went in for the seafood gumbo, hoping Hargrove's six month internship in New Orleans would be reflected in a gumbo that, even though Creole, would fit my expectations. The menu listed shrimp, crab, peppers, okra, chicken andouille, crayfish, cajun rice, scallion and tomato as incredients.

(Two key points: it's crawfish, all day, every day. You say crayfish in the South, you're going to be called a tourist. Also, the most obvious difference between Cajun and Creole is the addition of tomato in a recipe. Putting a tomato in a gumbo with a Cajun nearby is like slathering ketchup all over The Dog from Hot Doug's. Somewhere, a small alligator dies.)

When the gumbo arrived, I had high hopes -- the color was a nice dark brown and the shrimp and crab looked delicious. After a couple of bites I eventually found myself picking around for the crab and shrimp as the roux was too thick, with an awkward pasty texture (more like a gravy if you will) and overpowered any flavor that was there. Were my expectations too high? I had my dining companion try it just to confirm it wasn't my bias kicking in. There was agreement.

The rest of the menu looked interesting -- shrimp and grits, catfish sliders, crawfish fritters -- and the Bourbon Pecan pie could stand next to any back home. The service was nice and polite albeit very green. (Translation: If you're a service snob, give them a few weeks for the staff to get their sea legs.) I'd get into the drink menu, but unfortunately there wasn't one outside of four specialty cocktails that the server recited. Hopefully this is something they rectify before the official opening.

Nouveau is trying to be both a restaurant and a nightclub, and in this town, there might not be room for both, especially on Ontario. If they do manage to pull it off they will have succeeded in offering a scene that is truly unique -- nowhere will you be able to throw on your snake skin boots and leopard high heels and nosh on shrimp and grits while sipping on a Hurricane with Eryka Badu pumping in the background at 9 at night. Bonne chance, Nouveau Tavern.


PS. Before I get a barrage of critique sent my way, which please, let's engage on the topic, a Cajun will always say that a Cajun gumbo is better than a Creole gumbo. You don't have to take my word for it, but if I find myself entering in Frontier's Chef verses Amateur Gumbo Cook-Off, which is 100% happening if my gumbo recipe makes the cut, then you can "come on down" November 17 and experience the difference. Then you're going to want to slap somebody for putting an impostor in front of you and calling it gumbo.

Photo credit: UrbanDaddy

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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