Babs' French Quarter Kitchen
1353 Williamson St., 251-1222
11 am-11 pm Tues.-Sat. All items $8 or under. Wheelchair accessible. Nonsmoking. Curb parking. Cash only.
Hold those plans to go down to Mardi Gras on Tuesday. Willy Street now has some of the best New Orleans-Cajun food this side of Lake Pontchartrain. And if you can get past the disorganized, inefficient and sometimes maddening service, you might find yourself coming back to Babs' French Quarter often for a po'boy, a creole dish or, if you're lucky enough to hit it at just the right moment, a piece of pecan pie.
Babs' is located across from Ace Hardware, in the spot that used to house RP Pasta. Babs Matthews, a native of New Orleans who apprenticed under the famed chef Emeril Lagasse, opened the new bistro about two months ago, after a long stint preparing similar dishes for the Harmony Bar.
Four of us filed into the sparsely decorated restaurant on a chilly Friday night, looking forward to celebrating the forthcoming holiday with some spirited Cajun fixin's. At Babs', you order from the counter, pay your bill, then get your drinks and find a table to wait for your food. And wait. And wait. We placed our order at 5:55 and received our food at 7:00, even though the restaurant was only half full. Hey, let the good times creep.
The menu lists nine po'boys, six sandwiches, two soups, five salads, plus sides and desserts. Beer and wine are served, but no spirits. There are also four lagniappe served, at $6.95 or $7.95. Now, a lagniappe is an old Creole word, still in use in New Orleans, and it means a little gift or something extra, often given by a merchant to a customer, such as the 13th beignet in a baker's dozen. Here, for some inexplicable reason, it means a red beans and rice dish, creole or jambalaya.
Fortunately, all the food was prepared with the expertise that might be expected, given Babs' authentic credentials. A catfish po'boy, served on a soft baguette, was excellent, the fresh and tender fish coated in cornmeal and served with a spirited aioli. Another companion tried the shrimp po'boy and was just as satisfied. This sandwich, liberally stuffed with tender, good-size shrimp and enlivened with a peppery sauce, was another winning choice.
Among sandwiches, one judges a Cajun-Creole restaurant by its muffaletta. And this is one New Orleans dish that is neither Spanish nor French, neither African nor Creole, but purely Sicilian. This muffaletta, served on a crusty baguette, was stuffed with fresh salami, ham and provolone. But without olive salad, it would be no more than a sub sandwich. The olive salad, typically a mixture of pimiento-stuffed olives, pickled cauliflower, celery, pepperoncini, garlic, oregano and other spices, makes a muffaletta a muffaletta. And this is a good one, fo' sure.
Among Babs' 'lagniappe,' both the jambalaya and the shrimp creole are outstanding. The jambalaya is liberally supplied with aromatic (but not overly spirited) andouille. The shrimp creole, rich with the flavors of okra, tomato, onion, garlic, cayenne and paprika, was laden with eight good-size shrimp. Both are rare values at only $7.95.
We also tried a couple of sides, and even these rose above the ordinary. The french fries were small-cut, sprinkled with, I believe, paprika, and fried to perfection. The coleslaw was a perfect balance of sweet and tart essences, highly recommended.
Our stomachs purring happily, we were about to forgive the restaurant for our long wait by ordering desserts. I had heard about Babs' fabulous pecan pie. One companion loved the bread pudding here on a previous visit. And there was a special Mardi Gras king cake advertised on the specials board. (A king cake is a traditional Mardi Gras specialty, a yeast cake that contains a small prize or token which originally symbolized the baby Jesus.) Well, there was no pecan pie. There was no bread pudding. And there was no more king cake. Fortunately, there were pralines, and these were perfectly beautiful ' sweet, buttery, rich with the flavor of pecans and brown sugar.
Two more little digs about Babs', and then I'll quit. One, if it's cold outside, it's going to be cold inside. Wear a heavy sweater. Every time the front door opens, a blast of frigid air sweeps through the dining space. Two, Babs' does not take credit cards or checks, and does not have an ATM. This could be one reason why Babs' collects the money before serving the food. But really, who always has enough cash on hand to buy a dinner for two or three or four? Be advised.
Good food is the most important part of a good dining experience. But it's not the only part. And if enough of the other factors weigh heavily against the restaurant, the total experience could be a murky one, at best. I really hope Babs' shapes up its operating procedures to a point where I can feel comfortable in returning. Babs is a good chef. Now she has to learn how to run a good restaurant.