Beware food descriptions hedged with quotation marks, the menu writer's tool to let customers in on a joke or pun built into a dish. Quotes riddle the menu at Cafe Adelaide, and often presage an overdose of culinary whimsy.
Since opening in 2003, Cafe Adelaide has been the most freewheeling kitchen for the branch of the Brennan family that runs Commander's Palace. An aggressively playful style has persisted through six years and several chef changes, the latest coming last spring when Danny Trace left to open a Commander's Palace in Destin, Fla., and Chris Lusk took his place downtown.
Cafe Adelaide's strong points endure. The turtle soup and gumbo are unadulterated classics. Service is engaging. Gulf fish, when allowed to stand on their own merits, make fine entrees. The adjoining Swizzle Stick Bar is an urbane setting and turns out cocktails with equal parts professionalism and creativity.
And then come the quotation marks. The description of one appetizer promised pound cake with an "icing" of Port-Salut cheese and truffled crab claws. The cake was dense as fudge but dull as masonry while the cheese "icing" gave the crabmeat a sour, washed-out taste.
It's hard to ignore the word "corndogs" when printed on a high-end menu. Cafe Adelaide's shrimp and tasso "corndogs" are liberally coated with alarmingly spicy hot sauce and garnished with chicory, but fundamentally they are still fried shrimp on sticks and better suited to the corndog's natural habitat on the carnival midway than a restaurant with an expensive wine list.
The menu description for Texas quail and waffles used no quotation marks, but I should have read it more closely. I expected an upscale take on the soul-food classic of fried chicken and waffles. But this quail was stuffed and coated with waffle batter, then fried. The unfortunate result was like eating a Monte Cristo sandwich full of tiny bird bones.
After this, the foie gras "biscuit and gravy" proved a refreshingly straightforward knife-and-fork biscuit sandwich filled with juicy slivers of duck and foie gras. The "gravy" tasted just like white, peppery cream gravy. Duck proved a consistently safe bet here. Its entree preparation changes frequently, and one particularly successful version had thick bits of duck skin fried cracklin' style and placed back onto beautifully rare strips of breast meat for an extra layer of salt, fat and crunch.
Some dishes from the lunch menu were more satisfying than the evening headliners. A hefty cut of pork loin found natural affinity with mustard greens cut by tart juices from caramelized apples. Another lunch success was the hanger steak, deeply marinated and full of flavor. At any meal, I'd pick this cut over the dinner menu's filet, the latter's potentially fine texture lost to an acidic tomato ragout and obliterating crab and cheese Mornay, which was more like a dip than a sauce.
Whatever future shrimp corndogs and crab pound cake might have, Cafe Adelaide does nurture one proud, if rarely practiced, New Orleans tradition: the three-martini lunch. As at Commander's Palace, the restaurant serves martinis for just 25 cents each during lunch only. Fortunately, these are not "martinis," but in fact the real deal.