I didn't grow up anywhere near a bayou, so the closest I came to jambalaya as a kid was hearing the Hank Williams song on a TV variety show. (There's a bubbly 1973 version by the Carpenters on YouTube that has to be seen to be believed.) I once innocently asked my parents if I could taste the food mentioned in the song — jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo — and they looked at me as if I'd asked to eat unicorn stew. Even if there had been a Cajun-style restaurant in my home town, it wasn't the kind of food my parents would have liked. "Crawfish," my mother said with a shudder, "live in the mud."
So I never tasted real Creole and Cajun dishes until I was an adult and spent a little time in Louisiana. Kansas City, meanwhile, has seen several Cajun restaurants come and go. Other than the venerable Jazz on 39th Street, almost all of them have sunk into the swamp of oblivion: Kiki's Bonton Maison, the Big Easy Café, Red Vine, Copeland's, the Fountain Café. The short lifespan of some of these restaurants suggests that when it comes to this type of fare, the locals prefer Popeyes Fried Chicken.
It must not be that easy bringing the authentic flavor of the Big Easy to the heartland. That's why I give credit to Louisiana-born Robert Boudreau for taking the gamble to open a satellite venue of his St. Joseph restaurant, Boudreaux Louisiana Seafood & Steaks. (He returned the original X of his French family name to his restaurant's title for good measure.) The Mission Farms shopping-and-residential development in Leawood is, however, an odd location for this particular restaurant concept. And the dining room, which should probably feel cozy and intimate, is ridiculously vast.
"It's like a high school gymnasium that's been decorated — tackily, I might add — for a Mardi Gras party," sniffed my friend Carol Ann, an interior designer, on the night I brought her and Southern-born Addison to dinner.
Addison had eaten at the Boudreaux restaurant in St. Joseph and at the new one in Leawood, and he told me he'd been underwhelmed. "But I'm willing to give it another try, darling," he said in a molasses-thick drawl. "I love New Orleans cooking. And to be honest, the St. Joseph one wasn't so bad, except my gumbo didn't have nothin' in it."
The restaurant seemed like it didn't have nothin' in it, either, on the night we ventured into the place. A handful of people were at the bar and a few tables were occupied, but because the dining room is so big, it seemed even lonelier than it was. We were escorted by a server from the entrance to a four-top in the center of the room, next to a table loaded with Mardi Gras tchotchkes and dripping with Fat Tuesday beads.
"It's vulgar, baby, but so is New Orleans," Addison said. He looked up at the server, a pleasant young man named Tom. "What's on the starter list that's gonna make me think I'm in the French Quarter tonight?"
"A lot of people like the crab balls," he said.
"I didn't know they had 'em," Addison said. "And what about the fried alligator? What's that like?"
Tom paused. "Like steaky chicken."
What he brought out was a plate heaped with little golden-fried nuggets that were so bland, they could have been fried tofu for all I knew. The cream-style gravy that came along as a dipping sauce didn't do much for me, either.
The crab bisque, on the other hand, was exceptional: a decadent, silky cream soup loaded with lump crab (and a little mound of white rice served on the side). When it comes to crabmeat, Boudreau has balls all right — the dishes that incorporate it were all amply favored.