Ask Dottie Saki why she and her husband, John, named their new Fells Point restaurant Louisiana, and she'll tell you straight out. "We wanted to be a destination place," she says. "And we wanted a name that conveys seafood. People wouldn't go to a restaurant called Baltimore!"
Because Louisiana is located in Fells Point near some of the most rollicking bars on the face of this Earth, and because it specializes in Creole food, you may expect something fun and funky like Sisson's, the South Baltimore brew pub known for its Cajun and Creole dishes.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Louisiana is a stunner, with what must be the most elegant dining rooms in Fells Point. It's also unexpectedly quiet. Because of the bars nearby, the Sakis built in lots of excellent soundproofing while they were spending three years gutting the building and restoring it piece by piece. John Saki did the interior design himself, rescuing materials from failed businesses -- a magnificent African mahogany bar from the Fishmarket, pink marble from the Saks in Owings Mills, railings from the Power Plant.
The restaurant has a New Orleans feeling to it without overt references, unless you count the wrought iron and ornate chandeliers. The dining rooms, pink marble notwithstanding, are decorated in handsome muted colors. The total effect is sophisticated and very comfortable.
The food is as much French as it is Creole, and as much New American as it is French. Damon Hersh, the executive chef, comes from the Occidental Grill in Washington. He gauges Baltimoreans' tolerance for unusual ingredients and offbeat combinations beautifully, so there is almost nothing on the menu that wouldn't appeal to a guest who is just a little bit adventuresome.
Thus the blackened buffalo Delmonico with sweet potato pave sounds exotic, but the reality will delight almost any meat lover. The steak is lean but tender, the meaty flavor punched up with blackening spices. A wedge of layered sweet potatoes lends a faint and pleasing note of sweetness to the dish.
Hersh's blackening spices add zing without overpowering their dish. Witness an appetizer of two fine, fat shrimp, gently blackened and stuck jauntily on a mound of grits, then bathed in a "corn emulsion." (If hollandaise were made of sweet corn, this would be the result.)
Almost as fine a starter is the wild mushroom tart. The sliced mushrooms in their Marsala sauce are nestled in puff pastry, then decorated with slices of duck confit (preserved duck) and just a bit of chevre.
Perhaps the most purely Louisiana dish on the menu is a luscious shrimp-and-corn gumbo, nestled with more of those enormous shrimp. The gumbo is given a New Age twist with a perfectly shaped pyramid of rice and stalks of broccolini (a hybrid of broccoli and asparagus).
If you crave meat but buffalo isn't your thing, consider the pork chop, thick and white-fleshed and gently charred to contain the meaty juices. It benefits further from a fragrant bourbon glaze and thin slices of apple.
All these good things, it almost goes without saying, are flawlessly styled on pretty patterned plates. Only Dijon-and-pecan-crusted catfish over herbed potato mousseline lacked the pizazz of the rest of our dishes. It tasted fine, and the fillet was beautifully fresh, but still -- it was fried catfish draped over mashed potatoes. Fresh collard greens tossed with bits of tasso, spicy cured pork, added some excitement.
A first course of tuna tartare had plenty of pizazz, but the condiments of onion and capers are tossed with the chopped raw fish; I'd like them on the side. A warm duck salad with blue cheese and sweet and spicy pecans is better than it sounds. It's neither too heavy nor too sweet.
Desserts are out of this world, which they should be at a New Orleans restaurant. (No bananas Foster that night, though. The chef had not liked the looks of the bananas and sent them back, according to our waitress.) We made do with a delicious multilayered French torte in which chocolate was a key ingredient. Just as good and much lighter were scoops of colorful homemade sorbet presented in a martini glass and mixed berries with creme anglaise. If you want something just a little more wicked, try the pot de creme -- a soft, seductive custard with pecans.
All in all, a remarkably successful evening, made even better by a fine wine list and impeccable service. (Admittedly, our waitress could have been more unobtrusive, but we enjoyed her.) My only question now is why there hasn't been more buzz about what very well may be Baltimore's best new restaurant.
Food: *** 1/2
Atmosphere: *** 1/2
Where: 1708 Aliceanna St.
Hours: Open every night for dinner, Sunday for brunch
Prices: Appetizers: $5-$13; main courses: $18-$28.
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *