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Riverboat Race

A Mississippi side-wheeler docks on lower Second Avenue

Natchez sounds like a screwy name for a New Orleans-style Creole restaurant—especially since Natchez is in Mississippi. But one glance at the bar, and you'll know where the name comes from. An antique lamp perches on the corner with one of those translucent shades that look like a hand-tinted postcard. The shade shows a race on the Mississippi between two smoke-belching steamboats, the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez, which churn up the river neck and neck, shooting sparks. Gee, I thought to myself, I guess they didn't dare call the restaurant the Robert E. Lee . . .

Natchez recently opened in the former space of the lackluster Patio Dining on one of the blocks at the dark and dwindling downtown end of Second Avenue. It's less than half the size of the former occupant, since the larger of the two dining rooms has been remade as a bar. There's a weird, hobbit-like hatchway communicating between the two spaces, so I guess a meal could be passed through if you prefer to sit at the bar. The dining room, shaped like a piece of pie, has a tin ceiling, white-tiled walls, and subdued sconce lighting, giving it a French Quarter air. Every table has an intimate view of the chef and his assistants at work, who seem aware of the scrutiny, and it makes them jocular.

The food is that rare species, Creole without the Cajun, in apparent emulation of white-glove New Orleans establishments like Galatoire's and Commanders Palace. In contrast to the catalogic menu of those places, though, Natchez lists only a handful of appetizers and entrées. The filet mignon with truffle mashed potatoes ($19) would be at home in any French restaurant, but the rich oxtail sauce will remind you, as residents are fond of saying, that N'Awlins is not really an American city, but the northernmost port of the Caribbean. This elegant admixture of lowbrow oxtail and highfalutin filet perfectly illustrates the Creole approach.

Chef Sean Knight in action
photo: Shulamit
Chef Sean Knight in action

The generous bowl of gumbo ($7) is as "Loosiana" as you can get, a hefty broth dotted with andouille sausage and duck. Eschewing the okra route, it's thickened with a very dark roux. The soup remains distinctly liquid, rather than gluey, and the halo of crunchy rice on the top is the perfect fillip. Though the pair of marshmallow-size crab cakes ($9) are not particularly flavorful, the fireworks created by the supporting elements more than compensate. There's a parsnip puree lending sweetness, a bright-yellow corn salsa called choux providing crunch, and an orange remoulade sauce that delivers a welcome chile kick. That there are few spicy dishes on the menu is an additional aspect that distinguishes Creole from Cajun.

Besides those dishes mentioned above, my faves include a quintet of baked oysters stuffed with spinach, bacon, parmesan, and bread crumbs, and flavored with an anisey liqueur called herbsaint, whose name is probably a corruption of "absinthe"; and a skin-on grilled chicken ($14) funked with bacon, diced Brussels sprouts, and some of the best stone-ground corn grits you'll ever taste. Come to think of it, in repeat visits to Natchez, I never tasted anything that was not carefully prepared and perfectly seasoned. The central problem is deciding between the banana bread pudding with praline sauce and the chocolate torte with mascarpone ice cream, which are usually the only two desserts offered. As far as I'm concerned, it's a neck-and-neck race.

 
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