Saturday, November 1, 2008

Big Easy's - easy to love

As the official send-off to my parents before they left for Brazil last month, we all had dinner at Big Easy's, a new venture on Preston Street. Despite the sadness I think we were all feeling, we had a truly lovely evening and the restaurant pretty much blew all our minds.

Big Easy's, as the name implies, is a Southern-style seafood restaurant that also serves very good steaks. It's on the site of the old Trattoria Caffe Italia location, but it's been extensively redone and is totally stunning inside, if a little dimly lit. There's a long dark wood bar with a huge bed of ice behind it where a half-dozen varieties of oyster are nestled; tables and chairs are dark and sturdy; walls are richly coloured and hung with jazz-inspired art. The music is fantastic - jazz, blues, zydeco and so on. Even the bathrooms are stunning - shiny black subway tile topped with glass mosaic tiles in earth tones. The effect is muted luxury, and it works - it's warm and cozy without being masculine.

Our waiter was a charming young man called Andre, and he took very good care of us indeed, given that we had a couple of challenges in our party, namely a five-year-old, a person with stringent dietary restrictions (grandma) and a person with MSG issues (my sister). The meal was beautifully paced and the kitchen was happy to make substitutions for anyone who needed them.

Most of us had appetizers, and from the sighs of delight and significant lack of sharing, I think they must have all been as good as the crab cake Chris and I shared. Usually, when one orders a crab cake, one gets a patty composed of bread crumbs, seasonings, mayo and some flaked crab meat. Not at this establishment - I swear that sucker was a hockey puck made up of 99 per cent lump crab meat, sweet and fresh and absolutely perfect. It arrived atop a generous puddle of red pepper and crawfish sauce enriched with cream that was so good I wish it was on the soup menu. We sopped up every last drip with very good bread and nearly wept when it was gone. This, my friends, is $14 well spent. Next time I'm not sharing.

I managed to try a bite of my Dad's gumbo, which was spicy and dark and rich and elegant. He and my mom also had a half-dozen oysters on the half shell, and while I'm not a fan of raw shellfish, they certainly seemed to enjoy them. My sister pronounced her steak tartare delicious (she's so bloodthirsty - been eating tartare since she was a kid!) though I declined a taste. I'm a carpaccio girl myself.

My main followed the marine theme: seared ahi tuna, crusted with sesame seeds, accompanied by coconut ginger rice. The vegetable side is meant to be asparagus, but I can't imagine eating asparagus in September, so I asked if they would be able to switch it out for the creamed spinach, and they happily obliged. I've eaten seared tuna at a few restaurants, but never this well-executed. The fish itself was impeccably fresh and cooked perfectly rare with a thin sear on all sides, sliced into two triangles to show off the gorgeous centre. No sauce to overpower its meaty yet delicate flavour, just the perfect rice, scented with ginger and enriched with coconut milk, and the creamy, garlicky spinach (not the best match for the dish, but utterly decadent) to round out the square plate.

I heard no complaints from the rest of the table, either. My grandma, seated next to me, had an utterly tender and toothsome filet mignon, mashed potatoes and peppercorn sauce. Generally she likes her steaks cooked to death, but this one was no more than medium rare and she devoured most of it happily. Chris's blackened salmon disappeared too quickly for me to even grab a taste. My Dad's catfish was yummy, though. My young nephew K even got his very own child-sized portion of plain baked salmon with white rice and veggies, which he devoured, and then promptly fell asleep on a nearby banquette, covered with my mother's coat.

Most of us were far too full to even contemplate dessert; however, the moment my mom and I heard the words "sweet potato pecan pie" leave the waiter's mouth, we were sunk. The slice arrived, twice the size of the usual restaurant dessert portion, as a gift from the chef with good luck wishes for my parents. Mom and I deigned to share a bite or two with those who wanted one, but ate most of it ourselves. I would pay someone at the restaurant money for that recipe. It. Was. Amazing. Closely related to pumpkin pie but with a true sweet potato flavour and a denser filling, topped with candied pecans, in a crust to die for. I told Chris that's what I want for my birthday dinner in February, so we'll be headed back there. For his part, Chris had a bowl of house-made vanilla ice cream which he enjoyed deeply.

I can't say enough good about how we were treated at the restaurant. Everyone's needs were met without it being treated as an inconvenience, all the food was delicious and hot, the timing was leisurely but we never felt as if we'd been forgotten. In short, it was a marvelous evening and I would highly recommend this place to anyone looking for excellent service and fantastic food in a luxe, yet not showy environment. Prices reflect the quality of the food, so it's not a cheap restaurant by any means, but it's well worth the splurge.

Go now. Seriously.

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