One of the big draws at Big Easy’s used to be the tall Texan, Val Belcher. Depending on who you are and what you know, that name either meant CFL football circa early ’80s, or Ottawa’s Lone Star Café (which expanded into a bunch of Texas Grills) and later the Big Daddy’s Crab Shack and Oyster Bar franchise. But Belcher gave up the chain business in 2005, and for the last few years of his life – he passed away a year ago – Big Easy’s Seafood and Steak House on Preston Street was very much his place. I had not walked through its front doors without the pleasure of his greeting. I am not alone in missing it.
Val Belcher’s friend and former business partner, Dot Janz, owner of the Black Dog Café in Manotick, now runs Big Easy’s, and both the front of the house and kitchen seem to me as solid as ever. A few things are amiss, mind you, not everything is faultless, but the big picture at Big Easy’s is still pretty appealing.
Starting with the service, which begins (still) with a warm greeting and remains attentive and knowledgeable, including about the wine list. Everything is delivered smoothly by enough floor staff such that your water glass is never empty and your food arrives swiftly.
The menu has a seafood bent and oysters are still the way to start here. They arrive with a cornucopia of house-made potions. I may dabble with this spicy sauce or that shallot vinaigrette, but always return to the good old lemon. They’ve put care into the bread, and they’ve bothered to caramelize the butter.
Other than the thatch of potato that ices the crab cake – too greasy, cold – the cake itself is dense and delicious and the accompanying red pepper sauce is flavourful. Order the bruschetta (’tis the season) and what comes is pretty and deconstructed. On the long plate are September heirloom tomatoes, lightly roasted and full flavoured, whole cloves of brown and gooey garlic, dobs of the superior Clarmell Farms goat cheese, and a mess of oiled crostini. It’s a do-it-yourself platter with two wee problems. The ratio of toppers to toast is off (too little/too much) and it’s missing fresh basil. Otherwise, it’s a fine dish. If you’re in a soup mood, the house chowder is much better than the raw and bitter-tasting gumbo. Also, I’d opt for the calamari for its tender squid and light batter, over the beet salad starter, which features over-boiled beets.
I love the dirty rice here. You find a pile of it next to the blackened catfish, which has just the right amount of oomph clinging to moist, flaky fish. Also with a side of dirty rice, the blackened salmon weighed down with shrimp, crab and crawfish is pretty decadent, and the Big Easy scallops are lovely, seared and soft, with bacon, tomatoes and oyster mushrooms on spinach.
Nothing wimpy about the chicken breast here. It’s bourbon-basted, crisp-skinned, moist-fleshed, with blue cheese, beans, and bacon adding interest. If you’ve come for a steak, you won’t be disappointed. The meat is tasty, the grilling precise. If you want to surf your turf, opt for the bacon-skirted filet crusted with crab and served with a yummy sweet potato mash.
The fries are good at lunch, but the pulled beef sandwich is icky sweet.
There’s great vanilla flavour in the crème brûlée, though the texture is more solid pudding than custard. The pecan pie is a winner.
Big Easy’s hasn’t changed much in the looks department since my first visit in 2008. It’s still a handsome enough space, though to my eye, these bare tables are screaming out for candles. They would help with the dimness too, which is a problem at some tables.
Wine is taken seriously and the prices are fair.