Creative Cooking, Westbrook
★★ (Very Good)
It’s a crisp New England evening, not a camellia in sight, no sultry Blue Bayou air, but we are tucking into jambalaya, gumbo, mamou and étouffée in a 26-year-old restaurant called Creative Cooking on the Post Road in Westbrook.
Mardi Gras is months away, but Creative Cooking serves New Orleans cuisine every day. The name of the restaurant does little to suggest the allure of Low Country cooking; the back story, however, says a lot. Sunil Manahotra was a chef on a cruise ship until New Orleans got into his blood. He quit the sea, immersed himself in Louisiana culture and cuisine and cooked in fine restaurants there for years. What brought him to Connecticut? A woman. Creative Cooking is actually ensconced in his wife’s ancestral home, renovated and expanded several times, most recently to carve out a commodious bar and lounge area where the good times roll with live jazz every weekend.
The menu attempts to describe and explain Cajun, Creole and New Orleans dishes and sauces and culinary techniques—an almost impossible task because this is cooking from the heart with the magic of spices. The right way to make deep-South dishes is your way. Or your mammy’s way. The wrong way is to use premixed spices. At Creative Cooking chef Manahotra creates his own spice blends, subtle interplays of sweet, sharp, hot and hotter sensations, different for each sauce, meat, fish or combination. With this in mind, we stop trying to picture what will arrive if we order it, and plunge in.
For me, there’s no question where to begin. You can’t go to New Orleans even vicariously without tasting its oldest and most famous dish. Ubiquitous as jazz and subject to as many riffs, gumbo (call it a soup or a stew) might be made with fish, shellfish, meat, vegetables or greens, but to be authentic it should begin with a dark roux and contain rice and a thickening agent, usually okra, sometimes filé powder (an extract from the sassafrass plant). Creative Cooking’s version is easy to like—bold, chock-a-block with fresh, sweet scallops, shrimp, corn kernels, tiny green peas, minced celery and herbs in a velvety thick soup with many flavor nuances and a polite prickle of heat. It’s a nice way to begin a meal—if you can resist the crawfish bisque, which is heaven on a spoon.
Neither of these starters will send you home with your eyes streaming. But there’s plenty of heat ahead. Andouille sausage, heavily smoked, extra spicy, is served with fiery cherry peppers and barbecue sauce. Served as a starter, this saucy sausage is almost too large for the plate—a portent of things to come. Escargots, exceptionally tender and tasty in a pool of anisette sauce, served with mixed vegetables as a starter for $8, could easily serve two. Many dishes, however, can be ordered in half portions and you often get a choice of ingredients.
You can have your jambalaya with shrimp, chicken, crawfish or a combination of two. I choose shrimp and crawfish and experience wish fulfillment in the form of an authentic Creole jambalaya, thick with seafood, ham, andouille, tomatoes and olives in a red sauce spiced with sorcery—hot enough to evoke its African origins but not hot enough to call the fire department. What impresses me about this dish is the quality of its ingredients—some of the best shrimp and crawfish I’ve had in years.
Romantic that I am, I have to have chicken mamou, which is named for a town deep in Cajun country where an ancient Mardi Gras tradition is still observed. Masked men on horseback gallop from house to house collecting ingredients for the Big Mamou meal. What they get goes into the pot. Today’s recipes are equally polyglot. Chef Paul Prudhomme’s recipe lists 27 ingredients. I have no idea how many ingredients Manahotra’s mamou involves, but they blend together to create a robust flavor it’s hard to say no to. Creative Cooking serves mamou on pasta as Prudhomme did, while in the old days it was probably served on rice.
The city of New Orleans is where New World rustic cooking meets French finesse. Creative Cooking pays tribute with a section called “From the French Quarter.” We peruse it eagerly but find few of the legendary dishes associated with the French influence. We settle for Bourbon Filet, a 10-ounce filet of beef with “Bourbon Street sauce,” red beans and rice and deviled broccoli. For me, this dish just doesn’t work. The steak is overwhelmed by a heavy, sticky, insanely sweet sauce, the red beans don’t belong, and the deviled broccoli is not devilish at all but inexplicably sugar-sweet, too.
We also try blackened tilapia with lobster sauce, shrimp, scallops and crawfish served over sautéed spinach and wasabi-mashed potatoes—good, but except for the spinach and mashed potatoes, it tastes pretty much like the other seafood medleys we tried.
The dessert list sounds mundane but surprises us with a terrific Key lime pie and an unusual pecan pie that I find sensational. Dense with chopped toasted pecans, it’s held together with . . . what? A bit of honey, perhaps, but absolutely no tooth-grabbing goo or glop. Fresh-toasted pecans deserve a pie like this.
Honoring Louisiana’s authentic Creole and Cajun roots as assiduously as chef Sunil Manahotra does results in a certain amount of sameness. But if you love the saucy, spicy, heavenly heat of Blue Bayou food in your mouth, Creative Cooking is the only place I know of in Connecticut where you’ll find it in such generous supply.
1835 Boston Post Rd., Westbrook (860/399-7872; creativecooking.cc)
Open Monday through Thursday 10 to 9, Saturday and Sunday 10 to 10 (lunch served to 4), Sunday brunch 10 to 3. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $4 to $12, entrées $15 to $25, desserts $5 to $6.Creative Cooking, Westbrook