The ceiling rafters at Royce's Cafe Orleans hold a jumble of Louisiana gear--Dixieland horns, Cajun accordions, gaudy costumes, Mardi Gras beads. It's like being in somebody's attic. Memories drift up from the bayous of one's mind. Memories of the great, aborted Louisiana food craze of 15 years or so ago.
Back then, our restaurants hadn't a clue about Cajun food (for a while, waiters didn't even know which syllable of "Cajun" to accent), but the public was delirious for that Paul Prudhomme stuff, so they floated a lot of bogus gumbo for a while. Then diners moved on to the next food trend. Of course, those were the days when there were new food trends all the time.
In the process, Cajun food never got a fair trial here in Southern California. Of the L.A. Cajun restaurants that opened during the craze, the one that survived longest was Orleans, which maintained a loyal following in an oddball West L.A. location until it lost its lease a year ago.
Owner Mary Atkinson then teamed up with Rick Royce, the barbecue-meister to the Stars, whose Sensuous Rib Sauce you might have seen in grocery stores. And so Rick Royce's Premier BBQ became Royce's Cafe Orleans. But about three months ago the partnership ended. Now Royce has imported Prudhomme alumnus Augustine Contreras from Louisiana to keep the only faintly schizoid barbecue-Cajun mix going.
The resulting menu is huge, not even counting a printed insert menu and maybe half a dozen nightly specials on top of that. Mostly it's the old Orleans menu, starting with the complimentary jalapen~o cheese rolls.
The best appetizers are still the three you can order together as the N'Awlins combo: jambalaya, red beans and rice and maquechoux. The impressive jambalaya is a dense truncated cone of rice bound with a strong, somewhat peppery tomato sauce, mixed with chicken, beef, andouille sausage and the spicy jerky called tasso. The red beans and rice are more peppery than you might expect. The real stunner of the three is maquechoux, a rich, rather sweet stew of chicken and corn kernels.
There are still signs of Prudhomme's early association with Orleans, such as Cajun popcorn (crunchy deep-fried shrimp and crayfish) and eggplant cup, a "boat" of eggplant hollowed out, deep-fried and filled with shellfish. I've watched a couple split one order of this filling eggplant dish, then one of Royce's meaty chili, and conclude they couldn't eat anything more.
Just about everything is good in this rich, spicy fashion, though I wouldn't recommend the Caesar salad, with its watery sauce and nondescript cheese. The best thing about it is the jalapen~o-cheese croutons.
If you remember Orleans, you'll recognize a number of dishes, such as the Natchitoches (pronounced "Nackitosh") pasta, mixed with shrimp, andouille sausage, tasso, chicken and beef with a tangy, slightly peppery sauce, and the bronzed dishes, invented at Orleans for people who weren't into Prudhomme's blackened fish (which is also on the menu). The bronzed salmon is wonderfully rich, with an elusive spiciness. The restaurant even has turducken, Prudhomme's dish of a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. You may not be able to distinguish one meat from another in this rich, heady protein bomb, but you'll sure know you've eaten.
If you've had Royce's barbecue, it will be familiar too. It's good and meaty, though if you ask for it smoky (Royce favors alder wood), it may seem a tiny bit dry. His sauces are distinctly original--they're like ultra-sweet molasses with just a bit of spice flavoring. If you don't like them, no problem; the barbecue eats fine with no sauce at all.
But the insert menu and the nightly specials include dishes you've never had. Twin filet with three sauces is one from the insert menu. The two steaks come with a mustardy Creole mushroom sauce, marchand du vin sauce redolent of red wine and a garlicky brown sauce (the latter two sauces tend to run together). Sometimes there's fish topped with crayfish in a mild reddish sauce, a classic Louisiana concept, or halibut topped with shrimp mixed with a tangy pesto.
The weakest element is dessert. The bread pudding is rather dry and the sweet potato pecan pie is not a pecan pie with sweet potatoes but the other way around. Maybe the key lime pie is the best, because they're often out of it. But basically, the Prudhomme spirit lives here. And the Royce ribs, of course.
Royce's Cafe Orleans, 10916 Pico Blvd, West Los Angeles; (310) 441-7427; fax 441-7322. Open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 4-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Beer and wine. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $32-$60.
What to Get: jambalaya, maquechoux, bronzed salmon, halibut with shrimp pesto, sweet potato pecan pie.