Dish Review

Cajun in the sun


Cajun House has atmosphere, great food, low prices and, thankfully, no Dixieland bands

Creole. Jambalaya. Gumbo. Truly, the exotic syllables of Cajun cuisine roll off the tongue and land in the libido, as ingredients left over from moonlit rituals in swamp glades are whipped into a frenzy by the street rhythms of the French Quarter and woven into gastronomic enchantments by kitchen magicians adapting their French recipes to Mississippi Delta ingredients. New Orleans has sent its roots deep into the repressed North American psyche, producing fruits rich in mystique and hedonism.

St. Albert’s Cajun House, thankfully, is circumspect in paying homage to these roots, with nary a breasts-for-beads exchange or impromptu jazz quartet to be found—although the huge Mardi Gras masks combined with exposed brick, dark wood and wrought-iron fixtures do bring echoes of the French Quarter into the restaurant. Noise and sinfully seductive aromas gathered in the space of the slanted ceiling above as my wife and I arrived sans enfant on an early Friday evening.

Despite picking possibly the worst time to roll up without a reservation, we were nonetheless seated by our friendly server within 10 minutes. From our table, we watched the evening light slant across the parking lot through full-size windows running the length of the restaurant. Our harried server rushed to our table and painted a luscious picture of the pan-fried halibut special before dashing off to gather my wife’s lemonade ($2.25) and my root beer ($1.95). She revealed that she had two other tables seated in her section at the same time. Remembering our own days in the service industry, we grinned at each other as we turned our attention to our gaily decorated menus.

“I’m having the special,” my wife announced with desperate certainty after a quick glance at our dining options. “There are way too many good things in there.” The Cajun House menu featured inexpensive po’boys, gumbos and jambalayas; in short, every Creole dish I had ever sampled and enjoyed, which left me in a pickle. Delectable descriptions of blackened catfish, steak in feta cheese and pecan-encrusted chicken set my head to spinning. Well past the point of making a choice, I copped out with the first combination I saw: the Cajun House Combination Plate ($10.50). The selection promised jambalaya, shrimp Creole, red beans and smoked sausage. I tried to convince my wife to start with frog’s legs (tastes like swamp chicken, I’ve been told), but we settled on coconut shrimp ($7.95) instead.

The coconut shrimp arrived relatively quickly; six piping-hot prawns basked in their thick breading, sweetened by crispy strands of coconut meat as we savoured the salty contrast of the dark soy dipping sauce. Awaiting our entrées, we watched a stream of servers maintain a boisterous 25th anniversary party in the back room. I checked my watch twice and my wife was grumbling about one of the simultaneously seated couples finishing their dinners when I finally caught our server’s eye. She informed us that the huge party’s appetizers had delayed our entrées, but ours should be up right away.

Our server returned a short while later with our dishes; their sight and smell almost banished the memory of the 45 minutes that passed since the shrimp were cleared away. Both of us dove in immediately. I nibbled around my jambalaya at first, teasing myself with the delicious red beans and popping a couple of plump, firm Creole-spiced shrimp into my mouth. The rich, mildly spicy combination was stunning, and nearly every bite included ham, sausage or chicken as well as the delicious mixture of spicy rice, peppers and tomatoes. The heat built gradually on my palate and I appreciated the glass of water beside me, but I never had to lunge for it.

Meanwhile, my wife was mowing through her petit-sized special ($11.95). A generous portion of pan-fried halibut lay under a yellow tomato sauce. Next to her steamed vegetables, the roasted potato was sliced into tender discs and sprinkled with herbs. My wife was ecstatic about her choice and the light, tender and juicy white meat was well worth the wait. The yellow tomato sauce tasted almost squash-like and balanced the halibut beautifully. Never one for fish, one taste of her entrée made me an instant convert. Not that I was trading my jambalaya, of course.

Sadly, our dessert aspirations were temporarily derailed by the quantity of food and the hunger-induced speed with which we consumed it. I knew my wife well enough, however, to suggest we take them to go. After another delay, we left the restaurant, weighed down with my girl’s Mississippi Mud Pie ($4.95) and my flourless, bittersweet chocolate cake ($4.25). We managed to make it all the way to the car before she tore into the takeout containers. I was a little disappointed in the dense brownie floating in a whipped cream pool, but her chocolate mousse-chocolate cheesecake-chocolate crust dessert was a sensation. Our bellies screamed in protest as we devoured every bite and began the long drive back downtown.

We were just over $50 lighter and absolutely stuffed. I couldn’t believe that this popular little restaurant in plutocratic St. Albert wasn’t charging far more for its outstanding cuisine. All they needed for ambiance was an exuberant jazz ensemble and a voodoo priestess going table to table offering curses and aphrodisiacs. My wife was relieved that Cajun cooking’s spicy reputation hadn’t meant scorching her mouth, although she commented that my mother would have hated it. Since we were discussing a woman who wouldn’t order Mary Brown’s curly fries because of their unbearable heat, I laughed all the way into the city. V

The Cajun House
7 St. Anne Street, St. Albert • 460-8772

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