Dixie's vs. Forum: Gumbo Smackdown

During the Mardi Gras time of year, when people in New Orleans are dancing and drinking and generally behaving in a very un-Minnesotan manner, northerners might decide to loosen up enough to try a mysterious Louisianan food like gumbo, the traditional Louisiana stew usually made with shrimp, andouille sausage, and okra.

The Hot Dish, in a bons temps mood year-round, flung on some sparkly beads and went out to see if there's any decent gumbo around here. We put to the test two restaurants that are justifiably proud of their versions of the stew: Forum Restaurant and Dixie's.

Maybe this isn't a fair food fight, because of the two contestants, one charges over twice as much for its gumbo as the other. Ponder the following descriptions and guess which is the spendy one:

  • A lemony, light roux with generous hunks of chicken, andouille, okra, peppers, and large, flavorful shrimp.
  • A dark, spicy roux with bits of chicken, catfish, and smallish shrimp.

You are correct. The first one is the Forum's, and it costs $16 (only available on the lunch menu). The gumbo at Dixie's is $6.95 for a bowl, $4.95 for a cup. But this isn't to say, "You get what you pay for." It's entirely possible you might like the one at Dixie's better.

Dixie's When you order the gumbo at Dixie's, the waitress issues a caveat: You have to taste it before you order it. Apparently customers have been outraged by the roux, considering it burnt-tasting or too spicy. In Louisiana, it would not be considered unusual, according to sous chef Erin Lege, who comes from those parts. They cook the roux in the oven, not on the stovetop, to the point that it's almost--but not quite--burnt.

"Some people come here just for the gumbo," says Dixie's executive chef John Sievers. "Other people don't like it at all. It's got cayenne, jalapenos, a lobster base, fish stock. That's just too much for some folks." They don't use some ingredients that gumbophiles might expect: no andouille ("that would make it too similar to our jambalaya") and no file ("made from sassafras, which is a carcinogen.")

Forum At Forum, there's nothing excessive at all, except maybe the slightly too-salty broth. Each ingredient is distinct and lovely. The meats, shrimp, red and green peppers, and okra are a delight to behold. But if you're looking for a fiery New Orleans piquancy, forget it. This is a refined, elegant gumbo. Why does that sound like an oxymoron?

The essential elements in Forum's gumbo
The essential elements in Forum's gumbo

According to Forum's executive chef Christian Ticcaro, the gumbo is the result of trial and error in their test kitchen. When Forum made its comeback last summer (recall its illustrious history here), they tried a series of "destination menus," of which New Orleans was one. "We use bacon fat in our roux," says Ticcaro. "But we keep it light. We think the lighter roux has a better flavor." The broth is chicken and vegetable, with a little Worcestershire, tomato juice, white wine, a dash of file powder. There's no fish in it at all, and the only seafood element is the South Carolina shrimp.

The winner: It's a toss-up, but if we have to lay down our beads on one of them, we'll go with Forum: Those big ol' shrimp are irresistible, and the chunks of peppers and okra are beautiful to behold. The Dixie's version is so different from Forum's, it's like comparing Fat Tuesday with Ash Wednesday. If you like a dark, spicy, fishy broth, go to Dixie's. If you prefer a concoction with a light, fresh taste, then go to the Forum. Each is delicious in its own way. Neither one is going to make you think you're on Bourbon Street, which is just as well, given all the morally reprehensible behaviors going on down there during Mardi Gras. We are Minnesotan, after all.

FORUM RESTAURANT AND BAR 40 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis 612.354.2017; Forum website

DIXIE'S ON GRAND 695 Grand Ave., St. Paul 651-222-7345; Dixie's website

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