New Orleans neighborhood restaurants can be idiosyncratic, but they still tend to share common character traits. There's the architectural evidence of a corner grocery or barroom the building might formerly have housed. There's Monday red beans and rice, and the gumbo pot is almost as busy as the fryer. There are occasional visits from celebrities and devoted regulars who are ready to sing its praises.
Cafe Dauphine has drawn deeply from the same neighborhood restaurant playbook since opening last summer, but it goes further. The open dining room is particularly attractive, finished with seasonal decor and refurbished woodwork, and the menu is strung with enough distinctive specialties to pin this restaurant to one's mental map of good food.
That's important, because Cafe Dauphine is in the middle of Holy Cross, a historic Lower 9th Ward enclave that is a bridge away from the now-buzzing Bywater, but off the beaten path for restaurants.
It's run by Tia Moore-Henry, her husband Fred Henry and his sister Keisha Henry, whose family has deep roots in the area. Before opening Cafe Dauphine, they had no restaurant experience and only a recent run catering at church functions and parties. But they had a strong hunch that their old neighborhood was ready for a full-service restaurant. While it can be slow at night, lunch is busy and the after-church rush on Sundays is something to behold.
There are well-covered standards including po-boys, seafood platters and salads with equal parts protein and greens. Unfortunately, fries and dressings taste like prefabricated products available in chain restaurants. The standout dishes are the original ones, such as the Lizardi rolls. The polar opposite of light, fresh spring rolls, Lizardi rolls are plump, fried shells encasing shellfish and cabbage and drizzled with a sticky-sweet sauce. Creole pepper shrimp is essentially barbecue shrimp made a little less messy — the shrimp already peeled — with mashed potatoes sopping up the sauce. The roast beef po-boy is made with rich, if sometimes chewy, sliced short rib.
Redfish Florentine, a frequent special, could hold its own against similar entrees at more expensive restaurants, with fresh spinach sauteed with crawfish tails and red onion in a buttery sauce that lets the fish's crisp edges come through. The star of this menu, however, is the fried stuffed bell peppers, another twist on an old standby. Crammed with a creamy mix of crab, shrimp and just a little dressing to bind them, they are like oversized versions of jalapeno poppers, minus the spicy bite. The gumbo has a thin, dark, uniquely restorative roux that comes directly from the black Creole gumbo tradition.
It takes a few turns to find this restaurant, tucked deep into its neighborhood, but with flavor and personality like this, a detour down Dauphine is worth the trip.