Big E is Back
If you follow Concord Street south from downtown St. Paul on your way to Bourbon Street Steak House, the area starts to look so desolate that by the time you pass the shuttered roadhouse La Esperanza you may have given up hope of finding the restaurant. But then the winding path opens onto a landscape of office parks and industrial buildings, out of which rises an old stone castle. It's the site of a nightclub called Valentino's, and, oddly enough, the comeback of chef Eric Austin, the "E" in the former Big E's Soul Food, renowned for its crispy fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, and baby-tush-soft buttermilk biscuits.
First, a little background. Big E, who is indeed a sizable presence, both in girth and personality, worked in numerous kitchens around the Twin Cities (Loring Cafe, Minneapolis Cafe, Cafe Un Deux Trois, Dixie's) before opening his titular neo-soul restaurant in 2002. Lines snaked out the door of the tiny, five-table eatery, where Austin prepared Southern home cooking with the professionalism of one who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. All was well at Big E's, until a place called Soul City Supper Club opened right next door, with 150 seats, a liquor license, and a bumpin' dance floor. Austin took on partners to compete, but they soon clashed, and Austin walked out. Seeking ironic revenge, or perhaps just a paycheck, Austin went to work for his former competition next door. With Austin providing his name and menu, the two feuding E's—the New Big E's Soul Food (which was actually the old Big E's, just without Big E) and the new spot, which, according to its hastily tacked-up sign, was now called Chef E's Soul Food and Blues—were the source of much confusion. For the second time, Austin clashed with his partner and walked out. Shortly thereafter, both E's were shuttered, and Austin's troubles showed up in one of C.J.'s Star Tribune gossip columns.
After putting some distance between those disappointments by working on a cookbook and a couple of television pilots, Austin has resurfaced in South St. Paul, to replace the restaurant Tre Vina with a New Orleans-style concept. The 1887 building, known as the Stockyards Exchange, originally housed businesses associated with the area's livestock auctions and meat processing. But when those activities were squeezed out by urban sprawl, the building was converted first to a hotel, then the restaurant/club. Despite the inner-city influx, the place hasn't lost its rural roots. One night, outside the front door, a crew from radio station B96 ("Blazin' Hip Hop and R&B") unloaded gear from its van, as a strong eau de barnyard wafted past.
Inside the bulky, Romanesque building, the rooms are decorated with dark wood; thick, patterned carpets; and a pressed tin ceiling. With the installation of colorful bulbs in the light fixtures and Mardi Gras masks on the walls, the first-floor restaurant seems to have made a fairly seamless transition from Italy to New Orleans. While Big E's food tended to be casual, greasy-finger fare, Bourbon Street takes its cues from some of the famous Brennan family restaurants in New Orleans, such as the Commander's Palace, where Austin once worked. In lieu of fried chicken or collard greens, there are steaks and seafood entrées that reflect Austin's formal French training, in addition to several Louisiana favorites. "I still have my Southern-boy roots," Austin says, "but I stuck my pinkie up a little bit."
Another difference: Big E's lacked a cocktail list, but Bourbon Street has several drinks in the sweet-and-fruity genre, such as a syrupy iced tea spiked with Maker's Mark, and a tiki-type concoction of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, and Grand Marnier topped with dry-ice-fueled smoke tendrils. But when our first plate of Austin's food arrived, I wondered if perhaps my drink had been stronger than I'd realized: Was an order of fried green tomatoes really just three measly little discs? Couldn't eight dollars provide enough purchasing power for at least a whole tomato? With some embarrassment, I rationed my friends one slice apiece and took a bite of my own. The breading seemed thick, the tomatoes mushy, and I didn't care for the Creole sauce. Uh-oh, I thought. What happened?
Fortunately, it was the meal's only hiccup. The remainder of my experience felt as if Austin had picked up just where he left off. If Southern cooking really is, as Austin says, a "Rubik's Cube" of ingredients, mixed and matched to create different dishes, then he seems able to solve it with one hand tied behind his back. The "Nawlin's" jambalaya was chock full of crawfish, shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, and juicy roasted corn kernels, with just enough heat to leave a lingering warmth, like a sip of Southern Comfort. The étouffée was a ruddy, creamy roux of shrimp and crawfish, flecked with vegetables and seasoned with warm, dusty spices. With seasonings so much brassier than most American fare, you can't help but wonder if you somehow missed a day in U.S. history and the South actually seceded from the rest of the country.
Steak eaters have several choices on the menu, including the Tomahawk, a 20-ounce rib eye that's been frenched, or trimmed, to look like a meat ax (picture a steak big enough to bludgeon someone, attached to a curved bone handle) and seasoned with herbs assertive enough to stand up to the meat but not hit you over the head. The steak was served with a corn succotash beloved at Big E's—blackened kernels with thin strips of onion, red and green peppers (though no edamame, as the menu had mentioned) that had the right mix of buttery crunch and spicy heat. A side of mashed sweet potatoes had the same piercing sugar-rush as Halloween candy corn, as if Austin was taking the potatoes as close to cloying as possible without making them overly so.
Austin serves several entrées that feel European—lamb chops with rosemary and Parmesan dressing, scallops with baby pea shoots and risotto—and highlight his formal talents. The most over-the-top of these may be the seared duck breast, served with wilted arugula, bacon-wrapped salsify, and a foie gras and mushroom reduction. While I did enjoy the composition, the fruits and vegetables weren't quite enough to cut the richness of the meats, which prevented me from sustaining interest. Maybe it was just the mood I was in, but I kept easing my fork toward a shared bowl of beans and rice, preferring the comfort of the humble protein and starch, simply seasoned with scallions and ham.
On weekend evenings, by the time you're finishing your meal, the beats from Valentino's will likely be making their way through the restaurant's ceiling, beckoning you toward the dance floor. If you're worried that ordering a dessert will prevent you from squeezing into skintight clubbing gear, be advised that the former—pecan pie, red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, boozy bread pudding topped with bananas—are worth forgoing the latter.
Though Bourbon Street has resurrected Big E's cooking, the new restaurant hasn't been very busy when I've been there. Either Austin's former Minneapolis fans haven't figured out where he is, or they consider it too far to travel. Without the social atmosphere, Austin doesn't seem quite at home as he pads through the dining room to check on diners, dreadlocks flapping against his white chef's coat. He says he's working on opening his own place sometime soon, in a south Minneapolis duplex, but that he's still renovating the space and negotiating with the city. ("We'll either have a very cool restaurant, or a house with a very large kitchen," he jokes.) In the meantime, Bourbon Street should help to tide us over.
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