After bumping around the region for an unexpectedly long time following Hurricane Gustav, I began to think gumbo recipes might suffer from something like the same sensitivity of place. How else to explain why gumbo in south Louisiana turns out so differently in towns like Jackson or Natchez in Mississippi, when the basic recipes are well known and easily prepared?
It was immensely comforting, then, to return home and get a bowl of the real deal at the Saltwater Grill, an unprepossessing restaurant in the Riverbend area that serves convincing New Orleans comfort food at reasonable prices.
A casual glance at the menu doesn't inspire much special interest. A few fried seafood po-boys, salads with or without seafood, burgers, grilled chicken breast the selection sounds a bit plain by local standards. But the kitchen's strength is in preparing casual New Orleans dishes very well, and the stamp of care on many of them sets these local staples apart.
Restraint isn't a term often used in praise of gumbo, where more of everything is normally better, but Saltwater Grill's rendition is beautiful because of its simplicity and focus on three elements: shrimp, okra and roux. The shrimp have a snap and pop in their flesh. The okra is stewed down to a fresh but yielding consistency while its flavor suffuses the roux, which is a murky color that might be off-putting in anything but gumbo. Altogether, the result is smooth, mellow, warm, earthy and ultimately very satisfying.
Also excellent is the kitchen's crab bisque. It has a milky gray color, but the roux is alive with flavors that zap the palate in beams of red cayenne, green onions and yellow corn kernels. The body of the bisque is creamy, but more than anything, it is a thick tangle of sweet crabmeat. Each spoonful has countless bits and strands of it.
Grilled oysters come out of the kitchen bubbling hot and practically lashed to their shells with browned, melted strands of Parmesan. They taste much more of marine flavor meeting grill than the butter and garlic sauce that can sometimes obliterate the oyster essence in other such preparations. Shrimp are grilled for a firm texture before being doused in a remarkably piquant remoulade sauce, and slices of avocado cool things down a bit.
The po-boys are well-composed and crammed with large shrimp, oysters or full-sized catfish filets, and they are dressed with shredded cabbage, a crunchier yet still traditional alternative to the more common iceberg lettuce. The sandwich menu has a few other highlights beyond the usual array, however, including a fat, meaty crab cake in a batter-fried shell that is bigger than most burgers.
The alligator burger is intriguingly different. In fact, the meat is a patty-shaped sausage of alligator mixed with pork, but there is much more alligator taste to this one than is normally the case with a link of alligator sausage. There's the chewy, almost springy texture of the meat, seasoned with green onions and red pepper, and the reptile tinge in the flavor responds well to a dose of sharp Creole mustard.
The cochon de lait po-boy is not quite the equal of the definitive version served by Walker's Southern Style Barbecue at its Hayne Boulevard shop and, more famously, each spring at Jazz Fest. But Saltwater Grill's version will certainly do during the 50 weeks of the year outside of Jazz Fest time or when a trip to the eastern New Orleans lakefront isn't in the cards.
The entrée list is a short selection of seafood plus a pork chop with a sweet cane syrup glaze, a conventional filet mignon, a red beans and rice plate with andouille and an obligatory chicken pasta dish. The grilled mahi mahi had a good crust and light, fresh salsa standing in for a sauce. The fish is of good quality here and is served in large, thick fillets. But the blackened drum seemed outside the reach of the kitchen. It was more burned than blackened.
Saltwater Grill does better with its hearty, pot-cooking approach, a great example being the shrimp and grits. The shrimp are plump and the grits retain just enough firmness for a pleasing texture but are also creamy. Crumbled bacon and chopped green onions sprinkled liberally over the top give the dish something like a crust of alternating salty, greasy and fresh, moist crunch.
Saltwater Grill is family friendly without being hokey about it. Dishes of crayons are set among the salt and pepper shakers for kids or sarcastic adults to draw on the butcher paper table coverings. Meanwhile the restaurant also serves its own home-brewed beer, an ale that is light, inexpensive and can readily stand in for any number of domestic beers when it comes time to wash down spicy seafood.