Cafe Sbisa finds success by embracing a traditional Creole New Orleans menu.
In the early days of its current (third) incarnation, Cafe Sbisa had a series of good but very avant-garde chefs whose delicacies, regardless of their goodness, were puzzling to most of the clientele. With good reason. The restaurant is 100 years old this year, and looks it. Mirrors in dark wood panels, an antique bar, and various tilts and skews that reveal the building’s age make one expect a traditional style of cooking.
About two years ago, after the last with-it chef departed, the owners turned the kitchen over to traditionalists, and it all seems more comfortable now. The food is beautifully presented, hot, made with first-class ingredients, amply served, and in most cases deftly flavored. Start with crab cakes, made with a great deal of lump crabmeat, held together with a relatively small amount of the traditional mixture of bread crumbs, herbs and egg. They’re served with an original sauce of horseradish and sour cream, one that sets of the flavor wonderfully.
Soups here are good. They make a very good gumbo, particularly of the seafood variety. The turtle soup could also be called a gumbo; it has that texture and the dark roux, as well as more chopped tomatoes than I’m used to seeing. Different, but good.
Two entrees are considered signatures, though both actually came from other restaurants. Barbecue shrimp are made according to a recipe left behind by Gerard Maras, the last of the aforementioned cutting-edge chefs here. The butter is emulsified into the sauce, which gives it a creamy look, a great mouthfeel, and a big flavor release. The shrimp are jumbos and served heads-on, with all the mess for which barbecue shrimp are notorious.
The other house specialty is trout Eugene, a baroque turn on the common local practice of topping fillets of fish with other seafoods. The wrinkles here are that the trout (or whatever they’re using since trout became illegal) is coated in cornmeal and fried, and that the shellfish on top are gigantic shrimp, sea scallops, big oysters, crab lumps, and other first-class morsels. In other words, what you get is a unique, elegant seafood platter, since there’s more of the topping than there is of the trout. (And there’s a lot of trout.)