In the world of food, the elusive term "Cajun-Creole" is broadly, and not without controversy, defined as an indigenous American cuisine with French and Spanish influences originating in Louisiana, and characterized by "the holy trinity" of bell peppers, celery and onion, along with fat, garlic, spices hot and savory, and tomatoes. This might sound academic, but it serves as a good starting point for discussing Onizim's, in the former Furlong's space.
While the menu evokes bayou country, the intensely horsy interior combined with the food make for a restaurant that seems more "Louisiana-inspired Lexington" than true Louisiana. Although some dishes get closer to the mark, others are much tamer than one might expect, losing the sensual lustiness of this sexy and delicious cuisine.
Order a Sazerac to get you in the mood, then select a few representative starters.
The plump boudin sausage was fine, not quite as creamy as others I've tasted, but still moist and tender with rice and pork. The crab cakes work, too, with their thin, crunchy crust around plenty of crab meat and scallions. The nice remoulade, which lacked the zip of minced herbs and aromatics, had just enough horseradish to make it pop. The andouille sausage, however, was oily and tough. Like most grilled sausage, it evoked wonderful images of summer dinners outdoors, just not those around the bayou.
Mixed green salads come with the main courses, and some of the dressings are homemade. The best one, spicy blue cheese, was far too thick for tossing fragile spring greens but worked well as a dip when the individual leaves, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers were dunked in it.
Barbecued shrimp was the hit entree of the night. A generous bowl of shellfish was served in lots of butter and beer with just the right amount of garlic. Bread crumbs thickened the sauce but did not, and should not, stop anyone from sopping up every last drop with more bread.
By contrast, the other dishes seemed flat. We passed on the fresh fish Pontchartrain because it didn't seem traditional without trout. Instead, we went for the catfish bourre. Its stuffing bore an uncanny resemblance to the crab cake filling, and the sauce, essentially a hefty helping of butter and white wine, enriched the dish but also made it a bit greasy.
Onizim's crawfish etouffee in tomato and green pepper sauce was more interesting, although its watery consistency suggested that any roux — fat and flour cooked to create flavor and body — was absent or not patiently darkened. In any case, the overall effect could have been achieved with amended stewed tomatoes. Converted rice accompanied it, which in itself was not offensive but just too neutral to do the dish any favors.
The chicken gumbo was the most disappointing. There were no pieces of chicken in it, but rather a stringy meat reminiscent of Cuban ropas viejas (a braise of pulled beef, onions and green peppers). Plus the kitchen had run out of okra and again, any roux involved had not been cooked properly.
What all this boils down to is expectations and first principles. When one's taste buds are geared up for the exciting layers and flavors that exemplify Cajun-Creole cooking, it is hard to accept anything else. While the atmosphere at Onizim's is fun — les bons temps do indeed rouler — and it is clear that the restaurant is trying to honor its proud origins, there needs to be more culinary self-criticism to bring the dining experience to its proper Southern latitude.