860 Elm St., Manchester, NHIt's exciting when a restaurant with a unique menu opens in the area, and N'awlins Grille fits the bill, serving up Cajun and creole cuisine in the Queen City. I was really interested in checking out the place that replaced the short-lived Rouge Grille, because I ate one of the best meals of my life at Pat O'Brien's on Bourbon Street in New Orleans several years ago. And since a trip to Louisiana is a little out of my reach right now, I was hoping to relive that foodie highlight here at home.
The restaurant owners definitely want you to feel as if you are in the French Quarter. When we arrived the hostess handed us some beads and sat us next to the sizeable bar. The lighting is dim; the walls decorated with images of jazz greats. You feel as if you've stepping into a different era — and who doesn't want to feel, even for a little while, as if they've been transported somewhere else? The bartenders and severs were even dressed in period garb.
I wanted to recreate that meal I had years ago, so I started with the Alligator Bites ($10.99), marinated alligator meat fried crispy and served with remoulade sauce (think a souped-up version of a traditional tartar sauce.) As The Dining Companion confirmed, alligator tastes a lot like chicken, albeit with a slightly chewier texture, and takes on the flavors it is served with. While the bites were fried perfectly, they were crying out for some salt. Seasonings were definitely absent from the dish. I used copious amounts of the remoulade to compensate, which also seemed to be a bit on the bland side.
TDC ordered the Cajun Mussels ($11.99). N'awlins Grille serves a generous portion and TDC had more mussels than he had room for in his throw-away bowl. They were nice and meaty, and they were also very clean, devoid of any sand or grit. The mussels are served in a Cajun spiced broth, whose flavors enhanced and did not overpower the mussels. They also came with toast points used for their traditional purpose of dipping. I tried them as well, and they are some of the best mussels I've had in a long time.
For dinner, I was having difficulty deciding what to order, but I settled on the New Orleans Trio ($16.99), a mini-buffet of Cajun and Creole favorites, so I could try a little bit of everything. The trio includes red beans and rice, crawfish etouffee, and Creole jambalaya. The star of the trio, and what I kept going back to, was the red beans and rice, a spicy, hearty concoction served with a piece of country fried chicken. It sounds simple, but the flavors were complex and the dish well-seasoned with a good level of heat.
I also enjoyed the jambalaya, which features shrimp, chicken and sausage over rice. Again, this dish had the right level of heat that didn't overpower the dish, and I can imagine eating a bowl of it on a cold, winter day — a new go-to comfort food. Unfortunately, the third member of the trio, the etouffee, fell short. I found the stew, which features crawfish and vegetables, a bit oily and off-putting. And it wasn't served hot enough. It just didn't measure up to its cohorts.
TDC chose the Jambalaya Pasta ($16.99), fettuccine pasta bathed in a stew comprised of shrimp, chicken and Andouille sausage, and covered with herbs and spices and chopped Cajun trinity vegetables (onion, celery and bell pepper). The dish is seasoned to your liking whether it's mild, medium or hot. TDC went with a medium spicing, which was very subtle until about halfway through the dish when he experienced a true medium heat level. He said everything in the stew tasted fresh and the amount of spicing left you chasing for more without ever becoming overwhelming.
After all that spice, we were ready for some sweetness. Surprisingly, there were no chocolate desserts on the menu to fight over. TDC had to go outside his comfort zone and chose the bread pudding ($4.99). The bread was moist with the flavors of an apple crisp, and served with whipped cream. It was also slathered in caramel adding to this sweetly satisfying concoction.
I had my eye on the beignets ($3.49), and had since I spotted them on the online menu. The four pillowy soft, sweet doughnut-like pastries were heavenly. They were served with a generous dusting of powdered sugar.
The only thing that could have made the dessert better is if they were served with a dipping sauce. After eating the second one, they started to get a bit dry, although the coffee flavored with chicory did help in this regard.
It's obvious that the restaurant owners want to offer up an experience like no other in the city, and they have accomplished that. The atmosphere, including live music, transforms dinner into an evening out, and that we certainly appreciate.
It was a real treat to enjoy the flavors of the Bayou, which makes up most of their menu, without having to buy a plane ticket. If you're looking for a nice evening out, or have never tried Cajun or creole cooking, it's worth a trip downtown to N'awlins.