Everything's Coming Up Rosey

A restaurant that specializes in seasonal grub has three choices when it comes to the off-season: Close for a few months, jeopardize its reputation by serving frozen product, or rely solely on other fare to bring in customers. Last week Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach opened its doors to dish up the first of this year's stone crab crop. A couple of summers ago, Joe's tried to stay open by serving other fare, like fish and steak courses, but its patrons weren't interested. So this year the eatery returned to custom and shut its doors for a few months.

Rosey Baby Crawfish & Cajun House in Sunrise, on the other hand, never closes. The place looks like a dive; it's dark and has a pool table, dart board, and TV, and the dining room is crowded with nondescript tables and chairs. But Rosey Baby is very clean, and from Thursday through Saturday it serves as a live blues bar, on Sundays and Monday nights an NFL hangout.

And a successful one at that. Though business during crawfish season is good enough to carry the restaurant through the doldrums -- lines wind out the door from January to June, when buckets of the Cajun crustaceans are available -- owners Jeff and Kurt Chrissey insist on balance as the first rule of business. Every N'awlins-style menu item in the eight-year-old eatery must be, according to Jeff's wife, Stephanie, as tasty as the signature Louisiana crawfish. "People will slam the phone down, storm out the door, or pout when we tell them the crawfish are out of season," she says. "But we still won't serve them."

The Chrissey brothers do make exceptions, however. During the hot months, when crawfish bury themselves in mud and can't be harvested, the Chrisseys use frozen tails for the crawfish etouffee, a thick stew cooked with very little liquid. We declined the delicacy, knowing that, like stone crab claws, sweet, plump crawfish lose some of their flavor when frozen. Perhaps that's why the crawfish bisque, which we sampled, lacked a certain joie de vivre, despite the minced shrimp, heavy cream, and host of peppery spices used to rev it up. The "Cajun popcorn," or fried crawfish, on the other hand, didn't suffer from having been frozen. Defrosted, coated in batter and spices, then deep-fried, the nuggets made for greaseless, crunchy treats dipped in a garlicky remoulade.

The proprietors have gone so far as to publish their standards on the menu. These include "staff rules" such as "staff members must have Fun." Our server seemed a bit overwhelmed by the hungry clientele crowding the bar and tables, but she was cheerful and strived to comply with rule number two: making guests happy -- "because when our guests are having Fun, well, it's Fun!" And the kitchen certainly heeded the third rule, which insists that "great food made from the finest ingredients and prepared in a unique style... is Fun."

Before opening the restaurant, the Chrissey brothers -- who named the restaurant after their mom -- researched and perfected recipes for dishes such as shrimp gumbo, dirty (spiced) rice, and red beans and sausage before trying them out on customers. Because some herbs aren't available in South Florida, they even have their spice blends custom-ground and mixed in Louisiana, then flown in. Paying close attention to home-style, backcountry details has its advantages. The red beans and andouille sausage was a fabulous, slow-cooked stew rife with chopped onions, red and green bell peppers, and chile-type seasonings. And the blackening spice on the catfish fillet was outrageously complex. The Mississippi Delta catfish was plump, fresh, and pearly inside the red-black crust of spices. From the bayous, a sauteed alligator appetizer was just as well prepared. Tender chunks of mild 'gator tail were pan-fried with mushrooms, peppers, and onions and served in a sizzling, buttery sauce.

Something the Chrisseys should list on their menu but don't is an indication of just how large the portions are. Entrees cost no more than $13 each but offer more food than the average human being can put down in one sitting. Platters, such as a beautifully tender, nine-ounce filet mignon, come with a crisp green salad, buttery corn on the cob, and quartered red potatoes. Stews are accompanied by corn, dirty rice, and fried catfish nuggets. But the Chrisseys should delete from the menu the statement that the staff will provide "a large assortment of fine wines, beers, and liquors and serve them responsibly." While it's true that the beer selection, which includes imports and domestic microbrews like Dixie Voodoo, is substantial, the wine list offers only two selections -- red or white Concha y Toro, available by glass or carafe.

Po' boys (sandwiches) come with their own set of rules: They're served on crusty French bread with homemade remoulade and a side of creamy potato or slightly bland rotini pasta salad. Another rule allows patrons to change recipes slightly by adding or subtracting cheese (provolone, Swiss, or American) and condiments (tartar, cocktail, or tarragon-garlic sauces). We didn't find it necessary to change a thing. The soft-shell crab sandwich, a succulent whole crab marinated in lemon butter, breaded, and fried, was delicious, as was the muffuletta, a hoagie that originated in the Italian section of New Orleans. Layered with baked ham, Genoa salami, provolone cheese, and marinated olive salad, the sub was baked to a golden brown finish.

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