Ten years later, Louisiana still makes a stunning first impression. There was very little resembling fine dining in Fells Point when Richard Saki opened his opulently appointed Creole restaurant in 2000, and certainly nothing on the grand scale of Louisiana. Saki designed Louisiana himself, and I had forgotten how much of the multistory interior is the result of his brilliant salvaging — pink marble from an old Saks Fifth Avenue, railings for the romantic grand staircase from the old Inner Harbor Power Plant and even a portrait of a nude from the legendary Stag Room at the old Haussner's.
Louisiana has expanded over the years — there is now a ballroom, too — and as you're walking through, more and bigger rooms keep appearing, as though in a dream. If you're planning an event, say a wedding, you should make an appointment to go look at it.
And, yes, I'm stalling. Because Louisiana is so grand in design and sheer capacity — I bet 300 people could fit in here — dinner here when only six or so people have shown up can be a little uncomfortable. It can be downright spooky, actually, and, at a particularly low moment during the evening, it occurred to me that Louisiana has turned into a zombie restaurant. It survives, it opens itself six nights a week for dinner, but very little vitality remains.
It's hard to tell now whether Louisiana has slipped or whether the food at other, newer restaurants has changed our expectations for Creole food and its Southern culinary cousins. It's true to say that over an evening, we only fully supported one item, a nicely grilled pork chop dressed with a compote of candied vanilla apples. The cooking here was perfect, the apples just right. Even then, the feeling wasn't enthusiasm or pleasure; a side of artichoke risotto aroused no interest.
There were a few dishes that had partisan support, such as the appetizer cakes of sauteed crab and crawfish that impressed a few of us with its well-formed flavor but turned off others with a texture described as mealy. This was served with a salad of roasted corn, plum tomatoes and fava beans, and dressed with a balsamic basil reduction, and as good as that sounds, it looked pale on the plate and tasted flat.
There was a bold attempt at a French toast appetizer, which brought together braised spinach and lobster meat to a fluffy brioche soaked in Tahitian vanilla. But the lobster had the taste of seafood that's been frozen, or at least languishing, and the parts never formed into a coherent, satisfying whole. Still, it showed us that the kitchen still cares. And, the menu does change at Louisiana — that's another encouraging sign. Even then, it's fair to question a field-green salad with strawberries so late in the season.
A few dishes, though, were more worrisome. In particular, a pecan-encrusted catfish, served over tasso ham and spiked collard greens, accompanied by a potato croquette and a synthetic-tasting lemon beurre blanc, was roundly disliked.
There was sometimes the feeling that Louisiana was suffering for being a slow restaurant — things might have been prepped too far in advance, or others might have been rushed into action. An entree of blackened sea scallops shows up promisingly at the table, but a quick inspection reveals that the scallops haven't been thoroughly sauteed — their bottoms are white and stringy looking, a sign maybe of an understaffed kitchen.
Was the Louisiana's version of gumbo always an unconstructed plating of gumbo ingredients — shrimp, sausage, roasted corn and asparagus — instead of the rich and darkly deep concoction that makes people order it in restaurants?
There was a problem with the evening's pace, a languid one, which is easily attributable to a kitchen that is accustomed to very slow weeknights. Even the presence of an unexpected foursome can throw things out of balance. It took forever for a basket of rolls to arrive at the table — the guess is that they are only pulled out of the freezer and fully baked off when living, breathing customers walk through the door.
The service was well-intentioned but not remotely in accord with either the ornate surroundings or lavish menu prices. Plates were cleared erratically, and the check was presented without an offer of dessert.
Not that dessert was on our minds. We were full to the point of discomfort. The room had grown stuffy, and this was the kind of rich food that brings joy when it's done well but fatigue when it's not.
There were a few other tables dining when we visited, a group of four that left soon after we came, and then a few couples who looked to be genuinely enjoying the romantic atmosphere. Overall, it felt odd being there, and the less things went well, the more conspicuous we began to feel. It was time to go.
There's a much nicer image for Louisiana than zombie to conclude with. There's something gallant about soldiering on when you're not adored, which makes Louisiana a little bit like Rhett Butler.
Where: 1708 Aliceanna St.
Contact: 410-327-2610 or louisianarestaurant.com
Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday
[Key:✭✭✭✭: Outstanding;✭✭✭: Good;✭✭: Fair or Uneven;✭: Poor]