Work in the right fine-dining kitchens and you learn the precision and restraint to amplify the qualities great products have to offer. Grow up in the right Cajun household, and you learn the rough-and-tumble aspects of rustic cooking, with its alchemic need to wring maximum reward from lower-born staples. Combine those two realms and you end up with Toups' Meatery, a new contemporary Cajun restaurant near City Park.
For a crash course in what chef Isaac Toups and his crew have been up to, order the lamb neck. It stands on the menu as a challenge ("neck" is a word in need of a culinary euphemism) and it arrives at the table as an anatomy lesson, a Jenga-like stack of vertebrae shedding strips and peels of meat between lustrous seams of melted marrow. But it wasn't just ladled from the braising pot. Minty chow chow crowns the top, black-eyed pea salad moats the bottom and the overall experience sticks as fast to your flavor memory as it does to your ribs.
Toups worked at Emeril Lagasse's local restaurants and the now-closed Cuvee for a hitch. He's originally from Rayne, a small Cajun prairie town best known for its annual frog festival. Much of his menu traces back to his family's meals while bringing in fine-dining bona fides, and it all provides welcome relief from the Cajun cliches that prevail even in restaurants around Acadiana.
Diners can spread a luscious disk of foie gras with jam, but also pass around baskets of fried sweet peppers stuffed with Honduran cheese and herbs. The steak is tri-tip, a lean, inexpensive part of the sirloin, aggressively seasoned and dosed with frothy hollandaise. And while duck legs usually get the confit treatment, here that's applied to their poorer cousin, chicken thighs, served tawny and taut over beans and greens.
The few seafood dishes seem just along for the ride, a hedge for customers not interested in the chef's real specialty, which is, unambiguously, meat. The restaurant exists to serve roasted half duck in citrusy jus, plump meatballs covered not with red gravy but a ginger and lemongrass barbecue sauce, and the double-cut pork chop big enough to produce gasps, though so juicy and smoky you'll somehow finish it. The large, always-changing charcuterie boards feature regional players like boudin and head cheese, but the selection can range from sliced lamb tongue to rillons, a sticky, syrupy pile of candied pork belly.
The only dessert is doberge cake, the New Orleans classic. There are specialty cocktails (including a few served by the carafe) and a smart wine selection that could use more by-the-glass options.
It's as feasible to enjoy cocktails and courses as it is to get a take-out bag of cracklings with a go-cup of draft beer from the bar. But when you combine traditions like Toups' does, the options are bound to multiply.