Epicurious Eating: The Big Easy
Voodoo and accordions
Published Thursday, 08-Apr-2010 in issue 1163
Frankie Terzoli has opened upwards of 40 restaurants over the past 22 years, of many different stripes and all over the world. Although it wasn’t until his latest venture that he ever needed to burn sage and bring in a priest to address a so-called property curse believed to have afflicted the last several restaurants that stood before his new Big Easy.
The quaint Hillcrest bungalow on west University Avenue has played home to The Better Half, Russo’s House, Talus Café and The Abbey, all of which vanished suddenly after experiencing a host of financial and operational problems. But Terzoli and business partner Stuart Kraemer didn’t care, saying that the structure cried out to them for presenting Terzoli’s sturdy repertoire of Louisiana cooking. So with ritualistic blessings, a new brick façade and live zydeco music grabbing the attention of passers by on Sundays, The Big Easy may indeed invoke spirits of a kinder order.
Dishes such as alligator Arcadian, oysters Bienville, kicky jambalaya and southern meatloaf can only sweeten the deal. With the exception of shrimp Creole, prepared with too much molasses the night of our visit, Terzoli resorts adeptly to the bold, classic flavors of regional Louisiana cooking, and in some cases dares to up the cayenne pepper.
A starter of jambalaya, for instance, was pleasingly spicier and moister than most, showing off a hearty mélange of smoky andouille sausage, chicken, shrimp and dirty rice in a base of chicken stock. A bowl of sausage-shrimp gumbo spiked additionally with high measures of chicken offered welcome hotspots as well, yet without detracting from the multiple flavors that arise. In this soupier, less seafood-y version, Terzoli uses only a touch of rice. My dining companion, who makes gumbo often, prefers more fish sans the neutrality of chicken. In Louisiana I’ve encountered both thicker and thinner versions, with and without poultry, proving that gumbo is a “to-each-their-own” kind of dish constructed with few hard-fast rules.
Our other first courses included gently marinated shrimp with grits over a bed of diced tomatoes that mimicked bruschetta. If you dislike grits, fear not. These are served crisp, in molded blocks, and speckled with bits of wild mushrooms (not easily detected on the palate). They also accompany steak Diane cloaked in dark, rich Diablo sauce. In either case, they became ideal mops for soaking up the remaining liquids on our plates.
Oysters Bienville in the half shell is an omnipresent dish in New Orleans dating back nearly 75 years, and in a war of claim by Arnaud’s and Antoine’s restaurants. At The Big Easy, they are nestled within soft clouds of salt meringue (not sure how that’s achieved, but we found it novel), and crowned with toasted breadcrumbs. The oyster meats were sweet and clean, complimented further by traditional shrimp and bell peppers. The dish is similar to Oysters Rockefeller, but minus the whispers of anise liquor (Pernod) and parsley.
From the salad category, we loved the arugula with duck confit, shaved fennel, orange pieces and pecans, dressed judiciously in citrus-Dijon vinaigrette. Soon, the Caesar salads will be made tableside from an antique service cart that Terzoli is waiting to arrive – an amenity that will correspond well to The Big Easy’s intimate level of service.
A liquor license is also in the wings, which means that for now you tote in your own alcohol and stumble away without paying any corkage fees.
The dinner menu extends to crawfish etouffee; duck l’orange; Louisiana-imported alligator served with collard greens; and southern-style meatloaf comprising beef, pork and chorizo with molasses barbecue sauce.
Terzoli’s lunch menu is an entirely different animal, packing in a litany of house-smoked meats and Po-Boy sandwiches. In the morning, patrons will find homemade beignets, which on the weekends include a version laced with bacon.
Having lived two years in Louisiana, Terzoli says he is thrilled to bring the state’s culinary specialties to San Diego. The Big Easy also represents a reinvention of sorts from his last kitchen venture on Morena Boulevard, where he opened “Frankie the Bull’s BBQ” — renamed “The Bull” since he left it a year ago. Displaying a less aggressive persona that he playfully adopted as a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef (season 2), he confesses that, “I haven’t thrown a knife since I opened here in February.”