Apart from Brennan's, Houston never has had much good Louisiana food.
Then, in one surprising day, I found five great Louisiana-style dishes.
Dish 1 - Calliope Po-Boy - boiled crawfish
This one was a freebie. Calliope Po-Boy had a one-day special of all-you-can crawfish for $26. It was mid-afternoon. Few customers had taken the deal. After I ordered a po-boy, the Asian woman behind the counter asked if I would like a few crawfish.
Boiled crawfish are almost always the same. Everyone uses one of two or three standard boils. Yet these were different.
First, they were big and beautiful. Second, they smelled of curry or herbal lemon. I asked the woman, "do these have lemongrass?"
"No," she grinned. "Sometimes we use lemongrass in crab boil, but we're out today."
"So what's in it?"
"It's a secret." She grinned even bigger.
The crawfish had the usual spicy, salty Louisiana boil flavor, but something exotic and Eastern in the aroma.
Dish 2 - Calliope Po-Boy - Soft Shell Crab Po-Boy
I came to Calliope to order an oyster po-boy. But I didn't. It was May 2. May has no "r." So I knew the season was winding down. And I had been on a run of bad luck with oyster po-boys. So I ordered one with soft shell crab.
This was as I remembered the best New Orleans po-boys. French bread that is crunchy outside, soft inside. Lightly battered, yet crispy seafood. Shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and mayo. The crab po-boy was a mixture of the fresh garden and briny sea, a play of contrasting textures.
Dish 3 - Catalan - Crawfish and Biscuits
I didn't go to Catalan to find Louisiana food. But it found me.
Apparently, two of the kitchen's chefs have background in creole restaurants. Without knowing this, my wife and I unintentionally ordered 3 dishes inspired by creole cuisine.
The first was a biscuit filled with a thick brown sauce with crawfish and andouille sausage.
This was a complex dish of fabulous flavors -- meaty, spicy, sweet. Yet the grainy biscuit made it southern comfort food.
Dish 4 - Catalan - Crab belly, argugula, tomato
In a great day of food, this dish wow'ed me more than any other. The thick, sweet crab was battered similar to the soft shell crab earlier in the day. It rested on a firm, full-flavored tomato, nestled in a bed of bitter arugula with a sweet dressing. On the side was the a splash of the spiciest remoulade I have tried.
Dish 5 - Catalan - Black cod in a crab & corn bisque
Black cod, with its firm large flakes, may be my favorite fish. This piece had been lightly charred, almost caramelized - a nice touch. But the meat was slightly dried, perhaps from a few seconds of overcooking. The dish was saved by the delicious bisque under the fish. Small bits of crab floated along with remarkably sweet kernels of corn in a delicate, creamy sauce.
The dish was more subtle, and perhaps less exciting than anything else that day. Yet it made a elegant end to a glorious day of big flavors.
Yes, I decided, it is possible to find a little Louisiana in Houston.