REVIEW: Battistella’s in downtown Raleigh

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BATTISTELLA’S

Address: 200 E. Martin St., Raleigh NC

Websitehttp://www.battistellas.com/

My Dish: Crawfish Etouffee, BBQ Shrimp for Appetizer

The Rundown: My wife is a born-and-raised Cajun from Lafayette, Louisiana. Needless to say, the first time we noticed a fleur-de-lis in the window of Battistella’s in downtown Raleigh, we were intrigued.

And nervous.

I lived in south Louisiana for nearly five years and in that time, became an Honorary Cajun. I even have the shirt. I grew to understand the importance food has on the Cajun culture and, more importantly, the difference between true Cajun cuisine and imitators. Typically, if the restaurant isn’t located in Cajun Country, that’s cause for concern. Chains like Razzoo’s and Ralph and Kacoo’s – while not necessarily terrible – don’t quite hit the mark when you’ve immersed yourself in the real thing.

Even when the owner of a Cajun or New Orleans style restaurant has his or her roots in south Louisiana, there’s usually still something missing. It’s hard to replicate the atmosphere of a Olde Tyme Grocery in Lafayette … a little corner store with the best shrimp po-boys on the planet. Or the French Press in downtown Lafayette, a newer (more modern) stop with the best Louisiana breakfast you can dream up.

So we weren’t expecting the world of Battistella’s. Anything resembling South Louisiana (within driving distance of our new home in North Carolina) would be a pleasant surprise.

So did it measure up?

The atmosphere has an up-scale Louisiana feel to it. It didn’t hurt that it was a muggy, rainy summer evening when we tried it … weather you’ll find in New Orleans 9 months out of the year. The bar as you enter highlights a large picture of the Crescent City, centered by the Superdome. The beer on tap is Abita … a positive sign for Louisiana folk.

And the menu certainly looks like New Orleans (which is different than Cajun on many levels, though similar) – fried seafood platters, crawfish cornbread-stuffed quail, blackened catfish, etc. We opted for the New Orleans BBQ Shrimp (toasted garlic, rosemary, lemon, peppery butter sauce) as an appetizer and both ordered crawfish etouffee as an entree.

The shrimp was good, not great. It was served swimming in a thin pond of barbecue sauce that had more of a teriyaki flavor than anything else. The sauce served as a better dip for the French bread that came with it than as a friend to the shrimp.

But the shrimp wasn’t our purpose. We wanted crawfish, which we hadn’t had since gorging ourselves during our last trip to Louisiana in April. (Pictured above), the etouffee looked a little soupier than what we typically had back home, but the smell (a mixture of seafood and roux) was dead on.

We were pretty excited.

The rest of the experience was a mixed bag. First, the pro’s … the crawfish itself was very good. As was the rice. Both were plump and filling. The other ingredients (which I won’t pretend to know all of) were very good as well. Battistella’s etouffee appeared to have a tomato base, which didn’t ruin it for me (but led my wife to say, “It basically makes it not even etouffee.”

In fact, the dish would have been amazing had it not been for the over-abundance of black pepper … an ingredient that almost managed to ruin the entire dish. Yes, it sounds odd for an Honorary Cajun like myself to complain about a spice, but the real Cajun at the table thought it was too much as well. A misconception about Cajun food is that it has to be hot and spicy, causing your eyes to turn into slots (which land on red peppers before steam escapes from your mouth and ears).

That’s not the case. To me, anyway. It’s all about flavor. And this etouffee dish hit on nearly all of those flavors, except the black pepper. Beads of sweat formed at my hairline. Our stomachs ached for a few minutes. It was simply too much.

Not enough to ruin it entirely … we DID bring some home and had it for lunch the next day. After reheating it, it lost some of its soupiness (and a bit of the fire, actually) and was a better meal the second time.

We passed on dessert, as our fire tummies couldn’t handle any more and were on our way.

Price: Pricey, but it won’t break the bank. About what you’d expect in similar restaurants in Louisiana.

Final Grade: Battistella’s earns a C-plus (the “plus” because it came close to a true Louisiana experience, which isn’t easy to do). The grade would have gone up had the etouffee not caused us to breathe fire for the next half hour. But for any transplanted Cajun or N’awlins native in the Triangle, it’s not a bad trip home. Just beware of the black pepper.

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