By Frank Sabatini Jr.
If dishes such as sweet-glazed lamb chops and scallops paired with grilled peaches don’t sound like typical Cajun-Creole cuisine, they shouldn’t.
Chef Quinnton “Q” Austin of Louisiana insists the menu he created for The Louisiana Purchase in North Park doesn’t reflect “touristy French Quarter food.” Yet to New Orleans locals who dine off the city’s beaten track, the dishes are largely familiar.
Most unique is Austin’s alligator cheesecake, a savory appetizer that plays off the longstanding version served in NOLA’s Jacques-Imo restaurant.
There, it’s constructed with alligator sausage and shrimp — and served in wedges. Here, it’s a shockingly rich puck of straight-up alligator meat and sausage folded into a velvety filling of cream cheese, smoked Gouda and Parmesan. The mixture is baked into a butter-crumb crust and then daringly crowned with chunky crawfish sauce — the traditional Mardi Gras recipe that shows up also on pasta and seared ribeye.
It’s become one of Austin’s star creations since he was recruited to San Diego by Grind & Prosper Hospitality, which also runs Whiphand in the East Village and Miss B’s Coconut Club in Mission Beach.
However, like his equally flavorful “crab fingers,” the dish begged for loads of crackers or crostini. The cheesecake is heavy and spreadable, but your fork is the only vessel. And the dainty crab legs — with the meat conveniently poking out from their shells — sit in a spicy lime-butter sauce deserving of a full mopping. Two small pieces of bread didn’t cut it.
Nonetheless, both dishes were excellent come-ons to the booze on our table — a complex “urban sombrero” made with tequila, pureed carrot, turmeric, vanilla and agave for my companion, and a “purple haze” raspberry lager from Louisiana’s Abita Brewing Co. for me.
It quickly struck us that nearly everything on the menu is anti-California food. In other words, it overflows with saturated fats. And salads don’t reside here. But just as well because most people arrive knowing fully aware of the decadent French influences inherent to Cajun-Creole cuisine.
“We’re used to eating heavy foods where I come from,” Austin said with a provocative chuckle.
Indeed, his fried chicken skins dusted in Parmesan and blanketed with melted cheddar attest to that. We found them refreshingly sinful, which explained why we couldn’t stop picking at them.
Had it not been for the draping of crawfish cream sauce on the alligator cheesecake, I would’ve opted for the “pasta Jenny,” which involves the luxurious sauce tossed with linguine. I instead chose the “North Park gumbo yaya” featuring a bouquet of proteins in a fragrant dark-roux base.
The bowl brimmed with shrimp, crab, andouille sausage, and blackened red fish. The bonus was a meatball made from delectably spicy beef imported from Louisiana. I craved one or two more. Though by the time I hit the layer of jasmine rice at the bottom, my stomach screamed “stop!”
Another entree, “the dookey chase,” yields three fried chicken wings, a decent serving of collard greens strewn with sausage, and house-made cheddar biscuits. The whole, jointed wings carried the crispy goodness of Southern fried chicken, a fitting complement to the fat-laced greens and biscuits.
Austin worked in kitchens “all around New Orleans” before landing here. He breaks the copycat mold of San Diego cuisine, and in an environment that greets guests with a mostly outdoor design occupying the base of a spanking-new residential structure.
No doubt, if you’re looking to shake up your dining routine (and diet), you’ve come to the right place.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.