You know I dont like Cajun, my wife said, but Ill come along if you need me. This in response to my invitation to join me for dinner at Battistellas, which opened last September in City Market. I was aware of her lack of fondness for the cuisine, and Ill confess I sweetened the offer with the promise of fried oysters.
It wasnt that I lacked for volunteers. I saw this as a golden opportunity to win my No. 1 dining companion over to a cuisine I had been a fan of ever since my first visit to New Orleans many years ago.
My wifes exposure to the cuisine, on the other hand, was limited to the handful of Cajun/Creole restaurants that have opened in the Triangle over the past 15 years or so. And, for the most part, deservedly closed.
I was confident I could win her over. Owner/chef Brian Battistella was born across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, where his family owned the citys oldest fish market. His culinary pedigree includes the legendary Commanders Palace and Dickie Brennans in the French Quarter.
Ive been a fan of Battistellas cooking ever since Hurricane Katrina forced him to flee to Clayton, where he opened a little gem of a takeout shop called Louises. The chef took his pots and knives to Raleigh in 2008, where he operated Battistellas New Orleans Kitchen for a couple of years in the erstwhile lounge of the old Crabtree Inn. In spite of the constraints dictated by cramped and dated quarters, Battistellas cooking showed considerable promise.
That promise is fully realized in his latest venture. Offering a seasonally evolving mix of traditional fare and contemporary creations inspired by a strong commitment to regional suppliers, Battistellas is easily the best Cajun/Creole restaurant the Triangle has ever seen. Or at least in the quarter century since Ive lived here.
Our meal began auspiciously with cocktails mixed by Jenna Cyr, who fills dual roles as bar manager and floor manager with equal aplomb. My wife pronounced her Spicy Fifty (a pungent elixir of Whipped vodka, St. Germain, lime, honey and red chiles) her new favorite cocktail. My Sazerac was impeccable.
As was my first course: New Orleans BBQ shrimp in a sauce punctuated with rosemary, lemon and garlic a sauce so addictive I was grateful for an accommodating waiter who offered more bread for sopping without having to be asked.
And my wifes fried oysters? Delicately crisp and almost obscenely fat, set against a velvety backdrop of pimento cheese cream (more sopping!), with a slaw of early local harvest green tomatoes singing brassy counterpoint.
Delectable oysters, steak
It was clear Id have no trouble luring her back for a return visit. Not when the temptations included an oyster po boy that I knew from prior experience to be the best Ive had this side of bayou country. As it was, I figured she might choose as her entree a seafood platter featuring oysters, shrimp and catfish fried or blackened, served with hand-cut fries, coleslaw and pimento cheese fritters.
Instead, she opted for the cast iron seared North Carolina flounder with crawfish fried rice, sweet soy butter and the Cajun holy trinity of celery, bell pepper and onion. The combination was well-conceived and the fish expertly cooked.
So was my bone-in strip steak from Rare Earth Farms, a grass-fed beef specialist in Zebulon owned by Karl Hudson, Battistellas partner in the restaurant. Grilled precisely medium-rare as ordered, the steak came with a soul-satisfying redskin potato gratin and wispy Creole mustard-crusted onion rings.
By the time wed finished dessert - lemon meringue pie and bread pudding, served warm with a white chocolate sauce, both first-rate I knew my wife was hooked.
Which is a good thing, because theres so much more to explore. Im sure my wife would like the soft-shell crab platter I enjoyed on another visit (though the doughy-centered fritters were a rare disappointment). And Battistellas riff on shrimp and grits with andouille, Prodigal Farm goat cheese grits and holy trinity sauce.
Id like to try the crawfish and spring onion gratin that wasnt available the night I tried to order it. Having sampled the crawfish étouffée, Im betting the gratin will be worth the wait.
You enter Battistellas through the bar, a wise design choice that mentally starts you on a journey from downtown Raleigh to New Orleans. In the dining room, linoleum tile floors, windows overlooking the cobblestone streets of City Market and vintage maps and photographs of New Orleans on peeling-plaster-over-brick walls reinforce the illusion.
The food makes it real.
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