This restaurant is closed.
Still no alcohol license, still no menu on the website, but I finally gave in — whether it was ready or not, I had to try the Big Easy. The chef/co-owner is Frankie “the Bull” Terzoli, Top Chef semifinalist and former chef/co-owner of Bull’s Barbecue, where the gumbo gave convincing evidence of a palate that knows New Orleans.
Terzoli is a local guy made good who cooked his way around the world and finally came home. He went to University of San Diego and to the CIA culinary school at Hyde Park, New York, then traveled through 27 countries, working in restaurants. (He’s also got a ship captain’s license.) “My background is Sicilian, and at the age of 7, I asked my mother for a cookbook. I still have it — Betty Crocker’s Cooking For Kids. By the time I was 7 1/2, I’d cooked through it. At age 10, I went to work at my uncle’s restaurant, the Venetian in Point Loma. Working there, with all that give and take in the kitchen, the fun of making diners happy, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Afterward, I always stayed with my own style — big, bold dishes. I utilize that in all my cooking.”
The Big Easy occupies the difficult site on University that previously housed the late, lamented Better Half (and before that, the less-lamented Talus, the Abbey, etc.). Ironically, the Better Half’s chef-owner was planning to convert to a New Orleans menu before he ran out of funds. The architecture of the historic building evokes the French Quarter, with its odd cul-de-sac open-air alley between the kitchen area and the dining room, which makes a great dining patio in warm weather.
With the help of a host of friends and well-wishers who volunteered labor, Terzoli completed the physical transformation, repainting the exterior an eye-catching light yellow with purple trim, a version of Mardi Gras colors; the interior is creamy tan with dark-brown trim and café curtains, hinting at Napoleon House in the Quarter. Although the chairs, along with a couple of held-over banquettes, are the same old Better Half unpadded wooden numbers dating from the Spanish Inquisition. Terzoli’s first blessed act was to build a ramp up to the dining-room entrance, which used to be a challenging tall step and hell on wheelchairs and aging knees. During our dinner, music played softly — an eclectic blend of blues, jazz, and what I’d call serious pop, for want of a more precise term.
The major NOLA classics are available mainly as appetizers, in somewhat eccentric versions of varying success. For better or worse, the traditional dishes have been subjected to the chef’s creativity, and for the most part, they emerge with the flavors of Louisiana intact. Red beans and rice, for instance, are served in a deconstructed version, the elements striped along the plate. The beans were too firm that night but flavorful from a rich cooking liquid, with a sneak-up-and-bite-you spiciness, plated next to Jasmine rice. The third, vital element was a heap of sliced spicy andouille sausage. Mix it all together and you’ve got your Crescent City washday miracle. (This dish is traditionally made on Monday laundry days.)
Oysters Bienville, always subject to creative interpretations, swings wide of the original mushroom-and-heavy-cream-sauce topping. Here, the oysters are baked and served in their shells, topped with Louisiana’s holy trinity (minced onions, green peppers, celery), plus chopped shrimp, crisped breadcrumbs, and melted mild cheese — a radical but delicious revision that Terzoli’s mentor, Louis Belchak of Maitre D’ in La Jolla (who also reopened Arnaud’s in the Quarter), came up with a few years back at a New Orleans “Anything but Rockefeller” oyster-cooking contest. They’re scarcely traditional but delicious. “I don’t usually like oysters much,” said tablemate Scottish Sue, “but I could eat quite a lot of these.”
The gumbo is lighter than the deep, dark voodoo version at Bull’s; it’s based on a chestnut roux instead of a mahogany roux, with a light hand on the filé gumbo (ground sassafras). “Wouldn’t you love this if you had a cold?” asked Lynne. “Eat a bowl and cuddle back in bed, all warm inside.” The lightly spicy, flavorful liquid is thick with shreds of chicken, small shrimp, and chopped andouille, along with diced green peppers and bits of cooked-down tomato. It has a few kernels of rice mixed in (in place of the usual mound of steamed rice served on the side, to be added at will). “Don’t they eat bread in Louisiana?” asked Mark. “I wish I had some to sop up this gumbo.” It would indeed be nice if Big Easy served some sort of table bread, as most restaurants do. At Bull’s BBQ, the gumbo comes with divine cornbread muffins. Why not here?
The one traditional dish that slides way too far from tradition is the jambalaya. Jambalaya is a Louisiana version of paella — rice cooked with tomato, oil, full-flavored seasonings, and varied proteins (shrimp, poultry, sausage, etc.). The texture can range from soupy-loose to tomato-heavy to a moist pilaf texture (as at Magnolia Restaurant, and in my own kitchen). But this was the driest ever, devoid of tomato, served in a round, flat-topped heap tapped out from a mold. The top is red from a dusting of paprika and cayenne. Without tomato, it’s not really jambalaya, nor even marginally good. Tastes like something dire from Popeyes.
The most exciting appetizer isn’t from Louisiana but the chef’s own fevered imagination: perfectly seared duck foie gras is hilariously plated over a crêpe Suzette with orange liqueur sauce and a scooplet of butter pecan ice cream. Outrageous! And fabulous, mesmerizing, seductive (pile on those adjectives!), proving that under even the most sophisticated American palates remains a childish yearning for dessert. We all went bonkers for it — duck-liver dessert.
As at most restaurants, entrées were a bit of a comedown. We didn’t try the Continental gourmet dishes (duck à l’orange, steak Diane, rack of lamb) but cleaved to the Louisiana choices that we’d come for.
Crawfish étouffée is a moister, tastier remake of the jambalaya — slightly sweet, middlin’ spicy, enjoyable, but again, revisionist. Typical étouffées include tomatoes as the main sauce ingredient; this one has none. Terzoli claims he eschews tomatoes because he doesn’t like canned tomato sauce, but that’s just silly: The étouffée recipe I copied from my friends in Eunice (on the Cajun prairie) calls for cooked-down canned tomatoes — which, like any Sicilian-American, Frankie grew up eating. (He could also use Pomi purée, which he does like.) The menu claims the étouffée is served on Dirty Rice (ditto the jambalaya). But, no, this isn’t dirty; it’s seasoned rice, not even lightly besmirched. Traditionally, the “dirt” consists of minced browned proteins. The purest version resembles a poultry stuffing, with chopped chicken hearts and gizzards (my preference, and prescribed by Queen Ida Guillory, zydeco accordionist and great cook), but coarser modern versions often substitute ground pork or beef, which cook more quickly and are available at the grocery.
Shrimp Creole also claims Dirty Rice. Of this dish, Scottish Sue declared, “This is the best rice I’ve ever tasted,” but she was surely swayed by the sweet tomato sauce garnished by a host of red and green pepper slices. It was closer to Chinese-American sweet-and-sour shrimp (minus the sour) than to anything Creole.
“What’s alligator like?” Lynne asked, contemplating Alligator Arcadian on the menu. “If it’s from high on the gator — I think the tail qualifies for that,” I said, “it’s a fine-grained lean white meat, something like chicken breast — or maybe pheasant breast crossed with frog legs. From low on the gator, it’s dark and a little slimy, like turtle. But you won’t get that here.” “It does taste like chicken breast,” Lynne said at first bite of one of the pounded, sautéed fillet pieces. (“I call it schnitzel,” says Terzoli, who also learned to make alligator boudin sausage, using the greasy parts of the gator, when he was cooking in bayou country.) It comes in a smooth, rich, pale-coral “Diablo demi-glaze” sauce (which includes Chinese chili sauce, a cayenne blend, and a Cognac burn-off), accompanied by a wedge of mushroom-studded white grits and a heaplet of fine-chopped sautéed collards closer to the Brazilian version of this veggie (couvée de Minas Gerais, a standard side dish to feijoada) than to Southern boiled greens.
Southern meat loaf is the entrée that gets the most blogger praise. Made from a combination of Angus beef, pork, and chorizo, it’s intensely meaty and a little spicy, with not too much bread filler; it comes with a dreamy purée of sweet potatoes and coarsely chopped collards. If you’re into meat loaf, it’s a terrific meat loaf.
Service was excellent, from a waitress who seemed smart and committed to the restaurant and her profession, and Frankie wandered out to schmooze with us when we were partway through our entrées, proving friendly and low-key, less bullish than teddy-bearish.
We concluded with an unconventional rendition of Bananas Foster. The classic has bananas flambéed at the table in banana liqueur, which forms a sauce with whipped-in butter. Frankie’s insouciant version is a parfait of banana slices, ice cream, and whipped cream, with caramel syrup at the bottom of the glass. Though it certainly wasn’t the legendary original from Brennan’s, its lightness was welcome.
If you saw the review of Indigo Café a couple of weeks ago, you may be wondering why I’m easier on the Big Easy’s radical revisions. Simple answer: Before you can riff on a cuisine, you have to understand it and master its traditions. Reminds me of a lecture that then-famous poet and critic John Ciardi gave at my high school, sternly advising a group of crestfallen teenage poetesses that before you can successfully play with free verse, you need to master the classical rhymed verse forms, such as sonnets. In food terms, think of those screamingly harsh curry-mayonnaise chicken salads that ran rampant through sandwich shops in the early ’90s, an execrable attempt to incorporate exotic Indian flavor into a bland mom-dish. Underlying problem: in India, curry powder, when used at all, is always cooked into a dish, never flung raw onto anything.
At Indigo, the problem was that only a couple of dishes (fried oysters and po’ boys) had any recognizable taste of Louisiana, seeming more like a bunch of Louisiana’s signature ingredients assembled by somebody who’d never been there, with no fundamental comprehension of the cuisine. I brought home ample leftovers, reexamined them under bright light, reheated them ever so gently, and retasted them several times each — and still, nothing but the po’ boy tasted like actual Creole or Cajun food.
I’ve got no objection to a talented chef getting creative with traditional recipes. That’s the signature of Susan Spicer, for instance, one of New Orleans’ most revered chefs. Cooking or eating the classics every day could become boring, no matter how delicious they are. But before you can play with free verse, you have to be able to knock out those sonnets.
Frankie Terzoli has cooked professionally in Lafayette and New Iberia. He’s got chops. Even if I don’t like all his revisions, he has sufficient background in the classics to have earned the freedom to play around. His Louisiana cooking may not be traditional, but however tweaked, nearly every dish carries the fundamental, vivid flavors of the City That Care Forgot and its surroundings. The food tastes like southern Louisiana, and mostly, it tastes good.
127 University Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-294-3279, thebigeasyrestaurant.com.
HOURS: Tuesday–Friday 7:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00–10:00 p.m. Saturday 8:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00–10:00 p.m. Sunday 8:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. Monday 7:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. (No dinner Sunday–Monday.)
PRICES: Dinner starters, soups, salads, $7–$17; entrées, $17–$26; desserts, $8–$12 (for two).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Revisionist New Orleans cuisine, plus French and Southern dishes.
PICK HITS: Foie gras over crêpe Suzette; red beans and rice; gumbo; oysters Bienville; meat loaf. Good bets: Sunday supper live crawfish boil (when available) or shrimp boil; breakfast beignets, especially weekend bacon-stuffed beignets with maple syrup.
NEED TO KNOW: Alcohol license pending, but okay to BYOB (no corkage). No menus on website yet. Street parking. Zydeco Sunday supper with live music, crawfish or shrimp boils (call the day before to see if the live crawfish crawled in).