Rural road recipes
By: Maggie Heyn Richardson
August 30, 2006
Reprinted From: www.225batonrouge.com
Restaurant hounds love a good rural road trip. Catahoula's in Grand Coteau, Joe's Dreyfus Store in Livonia and Breaux Bridge's venerable Café des Amis have long lured in-town foodies through cane fields and chemical plants to their pleasing, rustic storefronts.
Donaldsonville's Grapevine Café and Gallery is another in the line-up. Launched in 2001 by the team who created Café des Amis, the Grapevine features works by local artists, the occasional band and dressed up Creole fare. The menu is practically identical to the Café's, so you won't go without the requisites that made that spot famous: turtle soup, barbequed shrimp, cane syrup duckling and white chocolate bread pudding.
The Grapevine has been around now for five years, solidifying its own identity with distinct elements. It's a pleasing, art lover's place that features an airy interior and an ample outdoor terrace. The restored 1922 building is characteristically narrow and elegant, but the vibe is casual and easy.
We visited on a recent Saturday night and watched a steady flow of locals and road-trippers arrive. From an RV outside, a party of 40-somethings unloaded to celebrate a rehearsal dinner. The bride and groom, distinguished by their pre-ceremony veil and top hat, were surrounded by 12 of their closest friends. The Grapevine is memorable enough for an occasion like that, while also appealing to the t-shirt clad soft ball team seated nearby.
I couldn't help but kick things off with the turtle soup, because when it comes down to it, it's a tough dish to master and most others pale in comparison. Literally. The turtle soup here is as dark as midnight due to its patient, deep stock. Diminutive chunks of turtle mingle with just-detectable cloves and garlic. A swirl of sherry on the surface is all it needs to be quickly slurped and sopped up ($5.25, $10.15).
And that job-the sopping part-goes to the Grapevine's efficiently delivered fresh French bread. It's not perfect, but its gumminess is trumped by its usefulness. We also used it to push around the barbecue shrimp Pont Breaux style, an award-winning, sauce-heavy, heads-on shrimp dish that's famous for splattering ($12). If they offer a bib, take it. Nevertheless, the flavor is rich and sweet, and there's something satisfying about dragging the flesh of a newly exposed crustacean through such wondrous sauce.
Crab cakes, a special that night, were also just so-so. The meat was plentiful, but the lasting impression was largely deep-fried.
By now, normal humans get full (immaterial, I know), so the Grapevine's plain-Jane salad is a nice palate-cleanser. Red leaf lettuce, tomato and one signature pickled okra are about all you'll find, but the homemade parmesan peppercorn and blue cheese dressings are both tangy and noteworthy.
It's not easy to pick among entrees. The ample menu features regional fare like soulful chicken fricassee ($10), roast duck with cane syrup and pepper jelly ($20) and tons of Louisiana seafood dishes like crawfish bisque or pie and the savory stack of cornbread, fried or sautéed catfish, and crawfish etouffee. Such dishes are heavy, but unlike so many area restaurants, the Grapevine's versions escape being ridiculously fat-filled.
I sampled the sesame encrusted black drum, because drum is always a nice find in a world that's been long stuck on tilapia ($19). Succulent and springy, the fish is covered with a salty lime and raw tomato topping. Very pleasing. With all entrees comes one of my favorite Grapevine recipes, the smoky, stewed okra. Not that I'm a big okra fan, but that's exactly the point. This particular version is slime-free, hefty, and full of character.
Meanwhile, we watched the efficient, unobtrusive servers deliver white chocolate bread pudding to tables all around us ($4.50). The Grapevine's not-to-be-missed dessert frankly makes its other sweets, while decent, futile. The individual "muffin" of bread pudding is simple, not overly sweet and rich with egg yolks. But it's crowned by a pool of white chocolate sauce that stretches sinfully over the plate.
The menu is set to change soon, so be on the lookout for new items.