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Answered Prayer 

NEW ORLEANS FOOD & SPIRITS smothers its food, and its customers, with a whole mess o' gravy love.

Ask a Cajun about Louisiana's affection for smothering, and his answer will likely resemble that of my friend Paul's, which was more of a reverberation: a deep and prolonged "mmmmmmm, baby." Is it coincidence that his words-don't-cut-it answer echoes the Hindu chant "Om," or the Christian "amen"? I think not. There's something ancient and prayer-like about smothered anything, be it a cabbage, a quail, a nutria or a turnip. Akin to braising and stewing, and often browner than both, smothering is something the cavemen could have been doing over smoldering coals, all the while grunting and mmmmmmm, babying.

In parts of the country north of, say, Shreveport, smothering means the same thing as suffocating, an act not altogether appetizing. Merriam-Webster's fourth definition of "to smother" does outline the simple culinary steps -- "to cook in a covered pan or pot with little liquid over low heat." Even so, a Northerner reading these instructions wouldn't necessarily caramelize his onions to a sweet brown goo, and Louisianians don't just "cook" the liquid, but rather they simmer it down to a thick and velvety gravy. As Paul says, "From where I'm sittin' there are few more noble fixations than caramelized onions and gravy."

I'm currently fixated upon the smothered rabbit served on Thursdays at New Orleans Food & Spirits in Bucktown (it's also served on Thursdays at the original West Bank location). If a smothered dish is by nature outrageously moist -- meat virtually dripping from bones and vegetables flogged into wet and wilted submission -- this one is supernatural. Its thick onion gravy, imbued with caramel color and pelted with black pepper, is mild; the most outstanding flavor comes from the shards of raw garlic pushed into the crevices of rabbit legs and back pieces. And then comes the Louisiana double-smother: the rabbit and its gravy are set over a soupy portion of white beans seasoned with pork. It's a simple dish but a luscious one, the various brown ingredients maintaining their God-given flavors. Better get there when the doors open, as every last leg tends to disappear by early afternoon.

Judging from the vehicular jam along Old Hammond Highway, no one in Metairie works through lunch at the office. Diners willing to strain their emergency brakes ease into the precariously sloped parking slots before R&O and New Orleans Food & Spirits, competing restaurants that could only get closer if they merged into one. Mark Bergeron opened the latter five years ago, around three years after launching his flagship restaurant in Harvey. He was too busy opening the third location, in Covington, to talk smothering with me, but I understand the rabbit recipe is his. Bergeron's Bucktown restaurant is a family-friendly, khakis-and-a-T-shirt kind of place, with a fully stocked bar and enough fried seafood to make a shrimp uneasy. It differs from its many established, seafood-stocked Bucktown neighbors in that it's still unscarred by scuff marks and smoke stains.

If you can't make it for the smothered rabbit, at least you'll have the hushpuppies, which are essentially cake doughnut holes made with cornmeal, shot through with green onion and served mercilessly with butter; cheery waitresses distribute them for free when the kitchen isn't slammed. Several other appetizers orient around cheese and cream, such as the deep-fried crawfish and cheese Voo-Doo egg rolls, the cream cheesy spinach and artichoke dip, and the crawfish and corn soup that's good but so thick a mason could get ideas. Besides the hushpuppies, I prefer to spoil my appetite with fresh-tasting strawberry daiquiris served in chalice-like glass mugs and swirled with half a cow's worth of whipped cream.

On a Friday night, when the smothered rabbit is but a memory and Bucktown bulges with even more Suburbans, my pet entree is the well-seasoned ribeye, which contains just enough fat for flavor and more than enough meat for a meal. Aromatic, orange-tinged crawfish stew makes another formidable entree when crawfish are running sweet (now). Seafood Gumbeaux made with small shrimp, herbaceous file powder and ample black pepper is straight-up tradition. Fried shrimp, oysters and catfish served on Seafood Pirogues (Cajun for platters) are consistently still-moist and greaseless, though prepare yourself to reason with the dual-personality batter; it looks light and harmless but can feel anchor-like in the belly before the pirogue is sunk.

The entree salads at New Orleans Food & Spirits give over-eaters a big excuse to "diet." The Fried Chicken Club Salad, made with real bacon bits, cheddar cheese, hard-cooked egg and a golden-brown dome of fried chicken strips could fill the kind of wooden bowl used to toss several portions of salad at home. A powerful housemade Creole mustard remoulade dressing, and to a lesser extent extra-chunky blue cheese, points to detailed care in the kitchen.

You could say the greatest steal at New Orleans Food & Spirits is faking a birthday for a free piece of pineapple bread pudding; some people might walk to Bucktown for the gigantic daiquiri priced at $4. Me, I say it's living in the one state where an expanding chain restaurant regularly runs out of smothered rabbit by 2 p.m. Amen, Louisiana.

click to enlarge NEW ORLEANS FOOD & SPIRITS waitress Marcie - Newby tends to regulars Emmett Cornibé - (left) and Sidney Stone during lunch at the popular - Bucktown eatery. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • NEW ORLEANS FOOD & SPIRITS waitress Marcie Newby tends to regulars Emmett Cornibé (left) and Sidney Stone during lunch at the popular Bucktown eatery.
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