Restaurant Review - What happens in New Orleans...

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery at Redfish

The mystique of New Orleans is hard to pinpoint. Sure, it's the booze, and the music, and of course, the food. But it's also that gritty, funky, dirty and sweet personality. That sweaty romance.

At Redfish, the new Creole bistro owned by the same folks who brought us Agave, the funkiest thing about the place is its location on a dusty strip of Memorial Drive, and its history as one of the last true redneck bars intown, in the form of the Crazy Horse Bar & Grill. The days of the Crazy Horse are long gone, the dingy pick-up trucks in the parking lot replaced by shiny sedans parked in well behaved lines by the valet.

The interior of Redfish is supposed to evoke the dark and jazzy feel of New Orleans, but there is just a touch of artifice and slickness that ruins the effect. Weeknights have been slow recently, with more waiters in black Redfish T-shirts than customers. Perhaps it was the lack of customers that led one night to friendly but overeager service. On another night, with another waiter, we had the small back room off the bar all to ourselves, and with only the tropical fish in the large tank to keep an eye on us, service slowed down nicely and steadied. Our waiter appeared magically when needed, but resisted the urge to insist that we might order appetizers before we were ready.

I am always wary of a wine list that divides its whites into Chardonnays and other, and there isn't much here to get excited over. The reds do a little better, but maybe a huge orange Hurricane that packs its punch in the aftermath might be more appropriate, anyway. It will certainly go a long way toward getting you in that New Orleans spirit if the colorful paintings and light jazz on the sound system aren't doing it for you.

A thick, dark, rich roux runs through some of the best dishes here, like the gumbo appetizer, which is full of crab and okra. The same roux is toned down just a smidge for the etouffee, which you will probably be hard-pressed to finish at dinner but will make for a grand midnight snack a few hours later.

A creamy oyster and artichoke soup with andouille sausage pushes the richness threshold to dangerous extremes, partly because it is quite delicious and if you eat it all, your entree may end up neglected. The poached oysters swimming in wine-tinged cream hint at French decadence, and the andouille draws the dish back to its swampy roots.

Not all seafood-and-sausage medleys fair so well, however. Redfish's shrimp and grits replace the traditional bacon for andouille, and scallions for balsamic onions. The substitutions have the dish losing some of its magic, and while I heard virtuous rumors about the origins of the grits, I found them pale and soupy.

The restaurant's namesake dish, the redfish with horseradish mashed potatoes and Creole jus, lacked personality. If horseradish was present in the potatoes, it was undetectable, and the Creole jus resembled a simple lemon fumé.

Here is a strange Atlanta anomaly — it seems that all restaurants, from the most revered on down the line, remove the duck fat before cooking the breast. Redfish is no exception, and its honey-lacquered duck breast is delicious and cooked to a meaty medium, but I wonder how much better it could be with a well-rendered crispy skin and the aid of some of that rich duck fat in the sauce. It's true that there's nothing worse than flabby duck, and doing the skin right is hard, but surely Atlanta has cooks who are up to the task.

Desserts here are strong, particularly a warm bread pudding with currants that achieves the perfect balance between bread and custard. A great bread pudding is a rare find these days, particularly in its most traditional incarnation. Sadly, every night I was there, dessert was delivered along with the bill. Is it so much to ask that I be allowed to finish eating before the question of payment be introduced? Were there people waiting for my table? In an empty room, I somehow doubt it.

In New Orleans, there are all manner of regional restaurants, each with its own hook, its own style. It's not an easy task to translate such a varied cuisine into a menu of greatest hits. In order for Redfish to succeed, it could use a touch more personality and a little more focus. But there's a deft hand in the kitchen that is capable of some truly satisfying fare, and some seasoned servers who resist the pushy mistakes they may have been trained to dish out. If you walk into Redfish hell-bent on finding the same roux, the same jambalaya, or the same Sazerac cocktail you had during one of those quintessential New Orleans meals, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. But if you go looking for a kick of flavor and spice, a big orange drink, and a truly decent meal in a neighborhood where options are more than welcome, you might just enjoy yourself.