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Creole Cottage 

Casual Creole flavors are the draw at a downtown Gretna roost

WHAT

Cafe Etienne

WHERE

423 10th St., Gretna, 309-4072

WHEN

Lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner Wed.-Sat.

RESERVATIONS

Accepted

HOW MUCH

Moderate

WHAT WORKS

Homey, generous renditions of Creole classics

WHAT DOESN'T

Too much repetition between appetizers and entrees

CHECK, PLEASE

Heavy doses of New Orleans flavor at a mid-range Gretna restaurant

click to enlarge Theresa Soulet and son Todd Wicker opened Cafe Etienne in - Gretna. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

There aren't many restaurants on the West Bank where you can expect an amuse-bouche. Cafe Etienne is one, but don't get the wrong idea about the place. Just as upscale restaurants use a gratis sample of princely ingredients to presage their culinary intentions, a ball of fried macaroni or smear of boudin on French bread sent to tables at Cafe Etienne help peg the casual but earnest style of this new eatery in downtown Gretna.

  Cafe Etienne is the kind of place where, no matter what other special the kitchen might introduce, Monday will always feature red beans and rice on the specials board. The menu, which radiates the exuberance of a home cook aiming to please, makes few departures from the litany of familiar, mid-range New Orleans dishes.

  Shrimp are fat, fresh and copious, as best illustrated by the monsters soaking in brightly flavored New Orleans barbecue shrimp sauce or the simple, satisfying shrimp cocktail. Where the menu lists garlic, it turns up in force, as it did in lemon and wine sauce served with catfish fried crisp as a chip and mounded with seafood stuffing. When butter is mentioned in any sauce, expect so much that it pools like broth on the plate.

  One-time private chef Todd Wicker opened Cafe Etienne, but he says his mother, Theresa Soulet, practically pushed him into the venture. She bought the old Cottage Cafe building in downtown Gretna and insisted he make it his own. Following a massive renovation, the tiny cottage boasts a series of dark but handsome dining rooms.

  I had my doubts about my first dish here when the boneless, skinless chicken a la Lucien arrived in the sort of towering, convoluted shape that screamed mid-'90s dining trend. But it delivered. The chicken gripped a clutch of stuffing fattened with andouille and crawfish, and the flesh was patterned with parsley, Parmesan and light grill char.

  I wish the crab cakes had more lumps of crab lurking under their dark, crusty shells. As it stands, the pair of fried orbs topped with remoulade makes a ponderously rich dish. Eating light here means ordering an entree salad, though the heavily sauced fish dishes come close. The substantial amberjack is respectable, but the three competing sauces drizzled over grilled tuna are a little too similar to the busy excesses of Jacques-Imo's for me. The steaks are fine, but your red meat allowance is better spent at a proper steakhouse. Part of the appeal of Etienne is that, apart from steaks, entrees all range between $12 and $17.

  The coconut cake is a standout on the dessert menu. It goes well beyond moist to something approaching wet; sweet coconut milk seems to run out of the crumbs.

  Wicker opened the doors of Cafe Etienne last spring with Cindy Langhoff as chef and "Mother Theresa," as Soulet is known around the restaurant, as the one-woman welcoming committee. Strangers get pats on the back in passing, and just about everyone is eventually called "baby" or "darlin'," often while Soulet is doling out goblet-sized pours of house wine or making sure the boudin amuse-bouche was all right.

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