First Look: Nawlins

Killer muffuletta and other Big Easy eats in East Atlanta

There are maybe six tables in Nawlins (1271 Glenwood Ave., 678-863-5915) and only three of them are occupied when I drop by for lunch about 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. Maybe it's coincidence, but I notice that none of the tables has any food.

There's one server in the room and she's running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I wait almost 10 minutes before she makes it to my table to take my drink order. Meanwhile, a few other people come in and she shouts, "Welcome to Nawlins!" but doesn't make a move to seat them.

Tick tock tick tock. Once I do get my order in — a plate of jambalaya to eat there and half a muffuletta to go — the real wait begins. The three people at the table beside me are contagiously fidgety. I run to the restroom just to move around. Then I wander around the dining room a bit.

The restaurant is actually located inside My Sister's Room, a bar in East Atlanta Village, and the space turns into a club after 9 p.m. The dining atmosphere is suitably shabby to suggest a Cajun dive in south Louisiana. Expect rickety chairs and tables.

The people at the neighboring table get their food — two plates of étouffée and one of blackened shrimp with cheese grits. The woman who ordered the latter is an obvious foodie. She tastes, she comments, she shoves her shrimp and grits aside and announces she won't attempt to eat it. When I ask about their food, she says she likes her companions' étouffée.

That surprises me. This is my second visit to the restaurant. I'd been to dinner on a Wednesday night and ordered the same dish. It was unlike any étouffée I've ever eaten — watery and, although the menu says it's made with a roux, I detected none, either by taste or texture.

Later, I conclude that this is a matter of personal taste. A roux is not actually required, according to a New Orleans friend, and some say the difference is whether you're cooking a Creole or Cajun version. I won't get into the differences of the two styles, since they've arguably hybridized beyond recognition, but when my chicken-andouille sausage jambalaya arrives, it too surprises me. It is almost lividly red. But delicious. I don't think I could possibly eat the entire huge portion, but I clean up the bowl.

Meanwhile, I ask the foodie at the next table if there is anything she dislikes about the étouffée.

"It's good but it's not spicy hot enough," she says.

"But most étouffées I've eaten have been quite mild," I say.

More subjectivity in taste. But I think most everyone will agree that the muffuletta I ordered for takeout is killer.

But wait, there is more oddity. Besides Cajun-Creole food, chef/owner Franky Capobianco's menu also offers Italian cooking, such as spaghetti and meatballs and a dinnertime appetizer of a whole roasted artichoke with lemon-butter sauce I found very tasty. When he came by our table during a dinner visit, I asked about the Italian dishes and he told me that New Orleans has a huge population of Italians whose influence on the city's cuisine is seldom recognized.

At dinner, I ordered the sample platter that offered tastes of excellent red beans and rice, slightly sweet shrimp creole, fishy seafood gumbo and the mysterious étouffée. The latter, which Wayne ordered as his entrée and liked, substituted for the usual jambalaya on the sampler.

My favorite dinner dish was Wayne's appetizer — a whole fried green tomato, hollowed and filled to overflowing with maque choux, the traditional dish of corn with seasoning and vegetables.

I should add, too, that we did not experience the incredibly slow service at dinner that I had at lunch.

So, what to make of this place? A few things occur to me. One is that the menu — at lunch and dinner — is huge. I can't help wondering if it should be cut in half. (I was hoping for a Gumbo-a-Go-Go experience, if anyone remembers that.) The service needs to be improved. I also wonder if Capobianco underestimated the business he would attract. He actually offered a half-price coupon through Scoutmob and was absolutely slammed.

I look forward to hearing comments from aficionados of Cajun food.

Meanwhile, I paid a return visit to the gluttony inspiring Crawfish Shack Seafood (4337 Buford Highway, 404-929-6789). The restaurant has expanded from its three or four tables to a large dining room, and has received attention from the New York Times for its super-fresh seafood plates.

The owner, Hieu Pham, is of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodian descent but was born and raised in Georgia. His concept is not wholly new. New Orleans has a large Vietnamese immigrant community whose members have opened similar restaurants all over the country.

During my recent visit, I ordered a po' boy made with two soft-shell crabs and a spicy rémoulade. I've never encountered one of these before and I want one a week for the rest of my life.

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