You enter the Big Easy and are immediately greeted by a casually elegant gent with a Texas drawl and a Magnum PI moustache. He introduces himself as Val Belcher. Depending on your preferred milieu, you either know that name from CFL history or, more recently, from the Lone Star Texas Grill chain of restaurants. Mr Belcher played for the Ottawa Rough Riders football club for some six seasons, and then ran what became the Lone Star Group, which included the Big Daddy’s Crab Shack eateries. In his football days Val was an offensive lineman. These days he is a welcoming restaurateur.
But he gave up the multiplex restaurant world in 2005. Now he only runs Big Easy’s, a New Orleans style seafood and steak house. Open since June on Preston Street, the plan, Val tells us, once the street has been fully ripped up and reassembled, is for a large patio to be built in the front. For now, there’s a large bar with a long oyster bed, where you can drink, slurp and watch some TV, and a dining room that seats about a hundred. Some tables are polished wood or black granite, some are surrounded by chairs, others by upholstered booths. The space is burgundy, cream and clubby looking, with just the faintest charming whisper of the New Orleans bordello about it. Jazz, blues, R ‘n’ B, and a bit of Zydeco play in the background.
I’ve had two really quite good meals here. Big Easy’s isn’t the seafood restaurant of my dreams – the cooking doesn’t soar to new heights. – but when you’re talking seafood, freshness is just about everything. You cannot make really good seafood dishes without it, and the Big Easy has fresh covered.
Though Big Easy’s is mostly about seafood, it is also about steak. And I had a big fat ribeye here that was absolutely fabulous.
They are doing lots right. The menu, to start, is fairly short. (In a seafood-steakhouse with a southern theme, that is a wonder.) The wine list caters to a range of tastes and budgets, with good choices by the glass. Service knows the menu and has a neighbourly, casual vibe I don’t usually find in a steak house.
Good bread and caramelized butter arrives and we order a half dozen Caraquet oysters, juicy, plump, salty sweets from New Brunswick. They come on a metal plate with grated horseradish, and with a quartet of sauces.
The gumbo is homey, as a gumbo should be – a thick, subtly spiced and steamily rich briny bowl, dense with sweet shrimp. The crabcakes are real winners: a hamburger sized patty of solid crabmeat, the flavour is vivid, the spicing is bang on, the crust is nicely grilled, the construct is livened with lemon. If you order the spinach salad with wild mushrooms you will not find the earthy, rooty flavour you seek, for these are mostly white button mushrooms with the odd bit of reconstituted somethings. Stick with seafood and order the grilled squid. You will be rewarded with a large plate of very fresh and tender tubes, smeared with arugula pesto, served with a side of wilted greens similarly smeared. It would make a complete meal for $12.
Among the house specialties, the halibut baked with crab and creamed spinach arrives overdone, a bit dry, and I could live without the pernod – it’s a flavour too many. Better is the etoufÃ©e – one jumbo shrimp crowns the rice, small shrimp float in a rich, well peppered, sauce around it. Some may find the jambalaya a bit timid, still – this is a tasty, well-constructed dish of al dente linguine with sausage, moist chicken, fresh shrimp, red pepper, in a spirited Creole sauce.
Why steak houses all feel the need to offer asparagus year round remains a mystery to me. But do order it in May when it’s local and eschew it in September. Order instead the creamed spinach or the sautÃ©ed vegetables. Steaks here are well bought and well grilled.
Big Easy’s desserts are old-fashioned southern-America, and the best of the trio is a pecan-sweet potato pie. Or, you could order another round of Caraquets.