Cajun House, 7117 East Third Avenue, Scottsdale, 945-5150. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
What has Louisiana got that Arizona hasn't?
You want crooked politicians? We've got them. You want summers so uncomfortable that you can sweat while taking a cold shower? We've got them. You want guys named Zeke and Buford packing guns, six-packs and "Remember Waco" bumper stickers? We've got them.
Still, despite the similarities, nobody is likely to confuse Maricopa County with Terrebonne Parish. That's because folks born on the bayou get to feast regularly on heavenly Cajun dishes.
It's probably America's best regional cuisine. About 400 years ago, the Cajuns' ancestors left France for Nova Scotia. After the British took over Canada in the mid-18th century, they relocated to French-speaking Louisiana. During the past decade, a hardy few have departed the homeland and made their way west to the Valley of the Sun, opening restaurants to show off the native fare.
It's been a surprisingly hard sell. Baby Kay's and Justin's Ragin' Cajun are the only enterprises I'm aware of that have demonstrated staying power. But two new Louisiana-themed dining spots, Cajun House and Genevieve's Bistro, have entered the fray, battling for our Cajun dining-out dollars.
There's only one word to describe Cajun House: staggering. Nobody can accuse its proprietors of thinking small. These guys don't merely want to thrive; they want to dominate.
Look what they've done. At a cost, they say, of $8 million, they've fashioned 25,000 square feet of space into a mini-New Orleans, with room for 1,200 patrons. They're already talking about launching the concept in other cities nationwide. (Las Vegas, I hear, is next.)
The local buzz has started. Initially, it sounds more like a snarl, once you pull up and discover that valet parking is $4. No doubt some of the trendoids who pack this place think four-buck parking means Cajun House must be really, really cool. Other folks (like me) gasp with righteous indignation, and search for street parking. Unfortunately, when you're in downtown Scottsdale, the nearest parking spot often seems to be in Mesa.
The next hurdle is ID. If your face doesn't show the ravages of time, be prepared to let the staff examine it (your ID, not your face) at the door.
Once admitted, even sophisticates might find themselves staring in wonder, like country rubes at the base of the Empire State Building. A courtyard stretches forever, filled with patio tables. Beyond is a dance floor and large stage, where the nightly entertainment performs. Off to the right are a string of rooms where customers can shoot pool, smoke cigars or drink coffee. Stretched above them is a French Quarterlike balcony, behind which lie private and members-only facilities.
Off to the left side of the courtyard are several bar areas, including an oyster bar flanked by a 12-foot aquarium stocked with coral and sea anemones. The other bars are heavily stocked with a young, dressed-to-thrill crowd, on the prowl and ready to party. (And guys, if you're worried that your natural charms are insufficient to attract company, Cajun House's rest room houses enough sprays, gels and mousses to stock a Walgreens.)
What really gets your jaw dropping, however, is overhead: an expansive retractable roof. It's a smaller version of what you'll see over Bank One Ballpark. A massive indoor misting system keeps the place comfortable.
Tucked into a small corner of the 25,000 square feet is the Jazz Room, Cajun House's restaurant. In contrast to the frenetic energy everyplace else here, this spot is an oasis of tranquillity. Pictures of music greats adorn the walls. From the dining-room stage, a bored jazz pianist with an aversion to melody goes through the motions. Behind him is a colorful mural of a Taralike mansion. Black table linen and dim lighting, though, give the room a certain bohemian look.
The food? Well, I wish a little more of that $8 million investment had gone into the kitchen. The Cajun fare is generally good enough. But it's not nearly as eye-poppingly, head-swivelingly good as it could be.
For the most part, appetizers are lackluster. It's not oyster season, at least in southern climes, and the Gulf oysters we sampled demonstrated that fact. Fried alligator medallions have a certain exotic appeal, that is, until you actually try to eat them. Alligator can often be tough and chewy, and too many of these nuggets were incisor-proof. Too bad, too, because they came with a peppy, curry-mustard dipping sauce. Deep-fried crayfish tails--Cajun popcorn--make for decent nibbling, especially if you wash them down with an icy Dixie brew. Best, though, are the red beans and rice, which sport real Cajun flair. They're zipped up with spicy andouille sausage and served in an edible tortilla cup.
Don't count on tamping down hunger pangs by rummaging through the breadbasket. On one visit, we faced inedible dinner rolls that could have come straight from Sheriff Joe's Tent City facility. The jalapeno corn bread that showed up the next time was certainly an improvement, but it was too dry to provoke much interest.
Main dishes are a mixed bag. Top honors go to the Cajun paella, a truly luscious mix of big, meaty shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, clams and mussels, moistened with a garlicky etouffee sauce and heaped atop rice. It's served in a huge covered pot that only the most intrepid diners will reach the bottom of.
Blackened red snapper is deftly prepared, a substantial, juicy slab zestily coated with Cajun seasonings. The kitchen also puts together a marvelous coq au vin, tender chicken stewed in a fragrantly winy sauce studded with mushrooms and pearl onions.
It's hard to believe the same chef is also responsible for the snoozy crayfish etouffee, perhaps the signature Cajun dish, which isn't nearly as rich or flavorful as it should be. The shrimp creole is too one-dimensional--it's got bite, but almost nothing else. And I'm still wondering how I let the server talk me into one evening's special: a second-rate New York steak, only partially redeemed by a homemade barbecue sauce.
Desserts aren't bad, but that's about as ringing an endorsement as I can muster. One of the joys of bananas Foster is watching the liqueur-soaked, sugar- and cinnamon-glazed bananas get flamed up tableside. For some reason, though, Cajun House prefers to perform ignition back in the kitchen, out of sight. The chocolate mousse, meanwhile, is insufficiently chocolaty, and the light bread pudding, topped with a too-sweet lemon-rum sauce, comes in several notches below the town's best models.
Cajun House is a grandiose project. I'd come back here to drink. I'd come back here to enjoy high-quality entertainment. I'd come back here to stare at the retractable roof. I'd come back here to soak up the hormonal energy. I just wish I were as eager to come back here to eat.
Genevieve's Bistro, 15414 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 504-9855. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday brunch, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The folks behind Genevieve's Bistro have all the right instincts: Set up a reasonably priced, white-linen-tablecloth restaurant in a growing, thriving neighborhood that otherwise offers few casual fine-dining alternatives. But while Genevieve's proprietors got the strategy right, they haven't been able to execute it. The New Orleans-themed fare simply falls short.
Would you trust an Italian restaurant that couldn't spell "spaghetti" correctly on the menu? Well, I quickly lost confidence when I saw "beignets" mangled here. It wasn't only the spelling that was mangled. The artichoke-beignet appetizer was supposed to come stuffed with crab and cream cheese. But I couldn't find a sign of either of them.
The spinach-artichoke dip, served in a hollowed-out sourdough "bowl," looks like it wandered in from a 1978 fern bar. Salmon cheesecake is another starter that had me scratching my head. It's a heavy cheese spread bulked up with salmon, and seasoned with capers, shallots and dill. Only the spicy baked shrimp showed some appetizer oomph, five shrimp dusted with spicy Cajun seasonings and coated with honey.
Entrees are pallid. Surely, the chef can do better than the seafood pasta, an indifferent mix of shrimp, crab and scallops tossed with angel hair in a soulless cream sauce. Creole penne sounds lively enough: "red pepper pasta tossed with a melange of vegetables. Served in a cream sauce and topped with pepper jack cheese." But it's just a bunch of carrots and squash in a dull sauce that had no hint of cheese.
The lightly breaded chicken breast used in the coq au vin and apricot chicken had a dismaying institutional look and taste. And neither the coq au vin's wine-and-mushroom sauce nor the apricot chicken's fruity glaze contributed anything memorable.
Bayou filet also produced nothing but yawns. Sliced filet mignon is "rolled in Cajun seasonings," according to the menu, but if it is, there aren't enough of them. The menu also promises "crisp cranberry sauce," but like so many of the ingredients in so many of the dishes, it failed to show up.
What did show up, as a garnish on several platters, was a whole habanero chile, the hottest pepper on the planet. Just touching one of these babies to your lips can make you bounce around the room as if you're on a pogo stick. Our server told me to beware, lest, like one poor soul he failed to warn, I unknowingly take a full bite. That unfortunate diner, I was told, thought she was having a heart attack.
Am I missing something here? Why is a deadly habanero doing garnish duty? What's next, a pretty bouquet of belladonna and jimsonweed?
The single best item here is the Irish coffee cheesecake dessert--rich, creamy, cheesy. Why couldn't anything else match it? The bread pudding certainly couldn't.
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Genevieve's Bistro needs a major overhaul. To fulfill my professional obligations, I ate here twice. As things stand now, there's no need for you to come even once.
Spicy baked shrimp