A disturbing trend is sweeping through South Florida. I like to think of it as the "theme-parkization" of good taste. It's a Disney-style, mass-market approach to repackaging urban trends in food, drink, and entertainment in which bigger, louder, and slicker are considered better. You'll find it in Fort Lauderdale at the new Las Olas Riverfront. Inside Regal Cinemas' massive entertainment complex, a savvy developer has reconfigured for a mainstream audience the lounge culture popular in parts of Los Angeles and New York City. After slipping out of one of the 23 movie theaters, you can linger in a black-lit bar sipping a cosmopolitan and puffing on a Don Diego while the kids play whiz-bang, shoot-'em-up games in the adjacent video arcade.
You'll also find it further south, at a sleek outdoor shopping mall in Coconut Grove. Located a floor below the neighborhood Hooters is a sprawling theme restaurant sporting the silly name Cafe Tu Tu Tango. The place combines art and far-flung ethnic fare, both imports from trendy urban enclaves. While would-be artists paint rapid-fire oil paintings on canvases scattered throughout the restaurant, patrons nibble on insipid versions of upscale, multiethnic appetizers. The Chinese pot-stickers taste like they came from the frozen-food section of a grocery store, and a version of a Chinatown specialty, sticky rice in a lotus leaf, tastes like salty shredded cardboard.
And, finally, you'll find it out west, in Plantation, amid the strip malls, gated communities and national chain restaurants, where 811 Bourbon St., a large, brand-new, New Orleans-style restaurant offers co-opted Cajun food. Most big cities and many small ones offer at least one great Cajun dive where you can dig into a fiery jambalaya or a rich and earthy etouffee. The best of these places are generally out-of-the-way holes-in-the-wall run by honest-to-goodness Louisiana natives.
811 Bourbon St. is a massive, polished, Epcot Center version of these places serving watered-down Cajun fare and an assortment of non-Cajun dishes you'll find down the road at Bennigan's or T.G.I.Fridays. Opening 811 Bourbon St. as a Cajun restaurant was more than likely a decision arrived at by a savvy assessment of what would sell. From a marketing standpoint, the decision was a good one, judging from the large crowds the four-month-old restaurant is attracting. But from a culinary standpoint, the decision is more questionable.
"This sure ain't Bubba's," said my dinner companion, visiting from a working-class town in New Jersey where a tiny, ramshackle Cajun restaurant is run by an old fellow named Bubba. Bubba, my friend informed me, cooks up a mean gumbo in a no-frills setting at no-frills prices. 811 Bourbon St. features OK versions of Louisiana specialties like gumbo, etouffee, and jambalaya. But the difference between a crawfish etouffee at 811 Bourbon St. and real, down-home, Louisiana cooking at a place like Bubba's is like the difference between steak fajitas at Bennigan's and Mexican food in the barrio.
Etouffee is one of the great dishes of Louisiana, normally a brown, thick, and spicy vegetable stew featuring some sort of seafood, such as crawfish or oysters. A great etouffee is thickened with dark roux, which is a slow-cooked combination of butter and flour that is the basis for most Cajun cooking. The stew is simmered over low heat and served spicy hot over white rice. 811 Bourbon St. serves a pale blond stew that is much lighter than the typical etouffee. Although full of plump crawfish meat, the dish has no kick whatsoever and very little seasoning at all. Like the restaurant itself, a million-dollar knockoff of a big, old house on the bayou, the food at 811 Bourbon St. is much easier on the eyes than on the digestive tract.
In all fairness, the restaurant is attractive inside and out. Behind the green wood shutters is a lively, colorful dining room with a fireplace in one corner, a lively TV-studded bar in another corner, and a large, bustling, exposed kitchen against the far wall. The service also is buoyant and attentive -- half a dozen waiters and waitresses made sure our glasses, and our stomachs, were full. Still, perhaps for good reason, none of the restaurant staff asked how our food tasted.
811 Bourbon St. offers a small selection of appetizers, very few of which have any Cajun connection whatsoever. Most of the appetizers on the menu are typical chain-restaurant fare, like spicy chicken wings, smoked fish dip, warm spinach dip, and miniature pizzas with various toppings. We sampled one Louisiana-style dish, crabcakes with roasted red-pepper coulis. The cakes were two nicely seasoned patties of crabmeat and bread crumbs served with a bland red-pepper sauce and a bechamel sauce. At the suggestion of a personable waitress, we also tried the warm spinach dip, touted as a "signature" dish on the menu. The dip was overly rich creamed spinach served with tortilla chips and a side dish of salsa that tasted like it came out of a jar.
Among the 15 entrees on the menu, only four are actually Louisiana fare. The rest are straightforward interpretations of trendy and not-so-trendy upscale items like seared tuna, rack of lamb, and prime rib. Having been disappointed with the etouffee at lunch, we decided to give the non-Cajun fare a try. Whatever the restaurant's problems, the kitchen cannot be faulted for overcooking its meat and seafood. The rack of lamb was a perfectly pink medium rare, and a grilled swordfish special was served plump and moist. Still, the double-thick lamb chops were accompanied by an excessively pungent mustard sauce and served atop a mound of garlic mashed potatoes that was underseasoned and virtually garlic-free. The swordfish, sporting crosshatched grill marks, looked beautiful, but it too was underseasoned and accompanied by the same potatoes and a thick, heavy dill sauce. Both dishes come with a choice of a decent caesar or a mixed salad.
The restaurant offers a small selection of average wines, but the best drink deal is a glass of Heineken or Amstel Light available for only a dollar Thursday through Saturday. If you live nearby, 811 Bourbon St. is probably not a bad place to stop in for good cheap beer and live music. Most nights of the week, a rhythm-and-blues band plays in the glitzy bar area, where you can catch the game, nibble on chicken wings, or dig into the restaurant's saving grace, its desserts.
We tried the chocolate chimney rock brownie, a thick, warm brownie square bathed in vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, and whipped cream. The brownie was meltingly moist and far too rich to finish alone. My dinner companion assured me it was better than the Bennigan's version of the same dessert. We also tried the white-chocolate bread pudding with bourbon sauce that was as good as the brownie and equally difficult to finish.
811 Bourbon St. is a place that has spent a fortune on building a lively and visually impressive restaurant. As an upscale neighborhood hangout for western Broward, the restaurant is a pleasant place to linger with friends over an ice-cold beer, but you will have to look elsewhere for a real taste of the bayou.
811 Bourbon St.
811 S. University Dr., Plantation, 954-424-8110. Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily.
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Warm spinach dip
Roasted rack of lamb
White-chocolate bread pudding