Mellow it’s not, but the Big Easy’s Cajun/Creole cuisine smokes.
THE SCENE: Walking into the Big Easy at night can be a little jarring. The music is loud, the lights bright, and the smoke perceptible. Bold black-and-red hues leap out at you, along with colorful paintings of jazz musicians. Large-screen TV’s flash the latest scores and headlines.
Live music is touted as blues and jazz, but on this night, the entertainment is a guy on a keyboard with a sound that leans more toward Velveeta than gumbo. Still, the crowd was enjoying the music. Even at 8:45 p.m. on a Wednesday, the vibe was lively.
Yet despite the convivial atmosphere, there was a bit of a chill in the air—perhaps a combination of the hard-edged design elements and bartenders trying to keep pace. Other than the warm copper-tile ceiling above the bar, blurred brush strokes in the paintings and the curvaceous salt-and-pepper shakers, there’s not a lot of softness to ease into at the Big Easy. Still, neutral-colored ceramic floors, a cherry red Zodiac bar top and coordinating red banquettes and seat cushions contrast nicely with the deep onyx wood tables, and the unusually tasteful drop ceiling elevates the whole look. Meanwhile, little details like Turkish glass dinnerware in interesting shapes and sizes bring unexpected flair.
THE FOOD: Dan Funk (pictured below left with co-owner Dave Weinstein), the former chef/owner of New Orleans Café in Media, brings his favorite fare to life with a bevy of hearty Cajun and Creole dishes. More original than traditional, the extensive menu features jambalayas; étoufées; seafood, meat and pasta dishes; savory homemade potpies; sandwiches; and salads. Popular combinations include fire-roasted shrimp salad with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella; roasted magnolia chicken with smoked mozzarella, andouille and roasted peppers; and cherry cola baby-back ribs. Portions are big—nearly everything we had could serve two. And best of all, Funk isn’t afraid to bring the heat.
For starters, there’s the voodoo shrimp, a dozen large shrimp atop a bed of plump rice speckled with tiny slivers of red onion—large enough to feed three or four as an appetizer. The sauce was a rich mahogany, zigzagged with fine lines of snow-white sour cream. Each bite hit with a zing. The tangy voodoo sauce was heavy on barbecue flavor, but its lingering kick was far from unbearable, with a nice balance of sweet offsetting the heat. Best of all, the shrimp were prepared to al dente perfection—they actually crunched. I couldn’t get enough.
The filler-free macadamia nut-crusted crab cakes (pictured below) are topped with rémoulade sauce and served with a side of mashed potatoes and crisp asparagus. A tad light on the “lump” and wetter than we’d prefer, each was enormous. The blackened crab cake that accompanied the Caesar salad was equally gargantuan, with a zesty coating of Cajun seasonings. The dressing was better than most, its garlic and Parmesan accents adding a piquant touch to the crab. The Parmesan croutons were delicious, the romaine hearts cold and crisp. (Alas, a second tasting was disappointing, the lettuce unable to stand up alongside the warm crab cake.)
The alligator étoufée appetizer was a winner, notable for the meat’s chunkiness (much larger pieces than I’ve experienced elsewhere) with a naturally smoked flavor. A personal favorite is the coconut shrimp, which was laid out on a rectangular plate adorned with neon-like squiggles of honey and key lime mustards. The large shrimp were flawlessly prepared with a thin layer of crunchy-sweet, finely shredded coconut.
The spice and texture of the seafood étoufée—with scallops, shrimp and crawfish—was well balanced. And like in every dish we sampled, the seafood had a consistency that suited its seasonings and accompaniments.
THE EXPERIENCE: Dining at the Big Easy wasn’t mind-blowing in terms of ambiance or service. But when reduced to its essence—the food—the experience was more than satisfactory.
With the exception of the not-so-polite hostess, who was more into reading her magazine than greeting and seating guests, the staff had a “let’s get the party started” mindset. Nothing stands out at the bar—yet. The wine list is still a work in progress, and the only signature New Orleans cocktail is a Hurricane. Beer options are plentiful, with a hearty on-tap selection that includes Pilsner Urquell, Guinness, Bass, Sam Adams, Sam Adams Winter Lager, Hoegaarden, Yuengling Lager, and Abita’s Purple Haze and Turbo Dog.
Moving to the back dining room distanced us from the noise and smoke at the bar. Our waiter was relaxed, upbeat, funny and friendly—and he made excellent recommendations from the menu. We lingered a little late, so I can’t really fault the staff for wanting to sweep and mop around us, but it did make it hard to enjoy our coffee and closing bits of conversation.
THE SKINNY: While the Big Easy is more neighborhood hangout than dining destination, the food shouldn’t be underestimated. The party attitude tends to come at the expense of sophistication and refinement, but that seems to be what appeals to Big Easy customers. Its laid-back, no-fuss, unwind-with-the-masses aura makes diners feel relaxed and at home. Reasonably priced Cajun/Creole dishes prepared and presented with flair only enhance the Big E’s appeal. Those seeking a more intimate dining experience should try the back room, which is softly lit and further away from the band.
Big Easy Saloon
Location: 128 Paoli Pike, Paoli; (610) 296-9166
Cuisine: Cajun/Creole with a twist
Prices: $5.99-$10.99, sandwiches and appetizers; $14-$23, entrées
Atmosphere: Relaxed neighborhood feel; lively ambiance
Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Extras: Live jazz or blues nightly; late-night menu