A pair of stuffed alligators prowl the tin roof over the bar at Crawdaddy's, their backs lit by the glow of neon beer signs. Mardi Gras beads hang from almost every surface of the compact dining room, whose purple walls are plastered with Mardi Gras masks and old jazz album covers. When a band isn't pumping out jazz or jug band music from a small stage at the back of the room, Dixieland and zydeco dominate the playlist.
The bill of fare takes its cue from the setting and the music, serving up a medley of Cajun and Creole classics with an occasional improvisational riff. Unfortunately, the kitchen plays a few too many sour notes to reliably sustain the mood.
That's not to say you won't find some sensory delights on the menu. Order the boiled crawfish appetizer (listed on the menu as "Crawdaddies"), and you'll feast on a mess of mudbugs that could -- with a little imagination -- have you thinking you're at a bayou country crawfish boil. Crawdaddy's bread pudding, redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg and served warm with a whiskey sauce spangled with raisins, is an express ticket to New Orleans. The restaurant's rendition of red beans and rice is as simple and soul-satisfying as versions of the dish traditionally served on Mondays in homes and rustic cafes all over Louisiana. Top the red beans and rice with a split and grilled andouille sausage, and you've got a dish that's special any day of the week.
But just when you're humming along to the tasty tune of mussels sautéed in a Creole tomato sauce, you're brought up short by the off-key note of a seafood dip that's swimming in grease. You're happily snapping your fingers to jambalaya, a jazzy number featuring plump shrimp, moist chicken breast and andouille sausage in a classic Creole tomato sauce. Then the mood is broken by the gravylike thickness of the crawfish étouffée. Or the floury, underdone roux of a "kickin' crab chowder" that smothers a plate of grilled tilapia. Or the "big juicy shrimp" promised by the menu description of shrimp Creole, which turn out to be tiny and so watery that they dilute the sauce.
The delicate crusts on fried catfish, Cajun popcorn (fried crawfish tails) and a side of okra convince you that the fry cook really knows how to play his instrument. Then that theory is cast into doubt by the dense, heavy breading on fried shrimp. Fried oysters are OK, but they're not so good that you're tempted to try the oyster po boy when you come back. In a similar vein, a flavorful but dry chocolate cake won't be asked to give an encore performance.
I'd be remiss if I didn't applaud the solid performance turned in by the gumbo, a tomato-and-okra version made from the recipe of Don Pinney, one of the restaurant's owners. Pinney's partner, Tony Sustaita, also had a hand in developing the menu but is better know for Mexican cuisine. Sustaita owns the Bandido's restaurant chain, which currently has four locations in the Triangle. He closed a fifth location late last year and reopened it as Crawdaddy's in January.
Crawdaddy's is clearly Sustaita's new pet project, and you'll often find him in the restaurant, greeting customers and backing up the wait staff. He frequently asks customers how they enjoyed their meals, and it's reassuring to see that he takes the time to listen to their answers. I'd be surprised if Sustaita isn't aware of the discordant notes struck by the kitchen in the first few months. And, given his track record, I'd also be surprised if he doesn't have Crawdaddy's singing a more harmonious tune before long.