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2 Very Different Experiences in Birmingham AL

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iko.iko May 14, 2008 11:42 AM

I had two very different experiences last week at relatively new restaurants in Birmingham.

On Thursday, a friend and I went to lunch at New Orleans Food and Spirits in Vestavia Hills. I was excited to try the place out because, according to their website (http://www.neworleansfoodandspirits.com/ ), it is run by the third generation of a family from Houma, LA who also have 3 restaurants in the New Orleans area, one of which was only about a mile and a-half from my house when I lived there.

The menu appears to be the same as what I remember from the New Orleans operations, and the food we had measured up wonderfully also. Their New Orleans restaurants are not elegant gourmet palaces, but more neighborhood places to get red beans and rice, a muffaletta or po’ boy, a bowl of gumbo, shrimp and sausage jambalaya, etc. They are open for lunch and dinner, and every weekday they have a lunch special, which is generally priced at $8 or $9, and includes a nice salad with a choice of homemade dressings.

The Thursday lunch special is white beans and rice with your choice of catfish, a pork chop or smothered rabbit. My friend opted for the pork chop, which was immense, and he said it was almost as good as a steak. I really wanted the rabbit, since it was a favorite of mine in New Orleans, but I just wasn’t hungry enough (it runs a coupe of dollars more, but is a full half-rabbit), so I chose the catfish. It was very fresh and flavorful, with only a light breading. For dessert, we split a plate of beignets, which were very tasty, but not quite airy enough when compared to those at Café du Monde.

Service was friendly and efficient. We spoke briefly with one of the managers as we were finishing our meal (he was hustling just as much as the wait-staff to see that things moved along smoothly and no diner was in jeopardy of running over his/her allotted lunch hour). He had previously worked for a number of years at one of the New Orleans area locations, and told us that many of the ingredients they use (for example, the French bread from Gambino’s) was brought in from New Orleans.

The place had a very comfortable vibe, with Cajun music playing on the sound system. It was also surprisingly busy for having been open only a short while. It was heartening to see that offering good food and service at a fair price seems to work as well for them here as it does in New Orleans. Certainly, my friend and I agreed that this was a place we needed to return to at our next opportunity.

One other thing – as we were leaving, we noted that, on the back side of the restaurant, there was a large covered patio, that looks like it would be a very pleasant place to dine when the weather is right.

Now on a completely different note, let me tell you about a place I won’t be returning to. The name is Crustasian Bistro and Bar. It’s on Helena Rd. just a few hundred feet off of U.S. 31. My wife and I stopped in there for dinner last Friday about 6:45 PM.

Although they serve food, this is apparently really more of a bar. In fact, the entire time we were there, not a single person came in to eat a meal – only a few guys to sit at the bar and drink a beer. The ambiance is about nil in restaurant terms, but there is a dance floor, a place for a DJ, a karaoke machine and several pool tables at the back of the place.

The menu came in the form of two laminated sheets of paper. One was primarily bar snacks, like buffalo wings. The other had a couple dozen entries, all at the same price of $7.95. Each entry consisted of the name of the dish above a photograph of it; there were no other descriptions on the menu, so you had better know what Mongolian beef, for example, was. Most of the entries were Asian in nature, but there were also a hamburger and fries, two hot dogs and fries, and spaghetti with meat sauce.

We had been given a $25 credit to the place from a local radio station, so we decided to order a serving of pot-stickers, an order of Mongolian beef and an order of General Tso’s chicken. None of the food was bad, although the chicken was not the least bit spicy. I would rate it all as solidly mediocre.

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    birminghamvisitor RE: iko.iko May 19, 2008 06:48 AM

    Thanks for sharing your experiences...I will deff have to check out New Orleans Food and Spirits!

    6 Replies
    1. re: birminghamvisitor
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      Big Daddy RE: birminghamvisitor May 19, 2008 08:51 AM

      I was heartened to hear about the po boys on Gambino's bread. Frankly I hadn't heard good things, but sometimes I think people just have a bias against anything at the City Center.

      1. re: Big Daddy
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        iko.iko RE: Big Daddy Jun 7, 2008 08:42 PM

        I've been back to New Orleans Food and Spirits three times now since my original post, twice for lunch and once for dinner. You should understand that this is totally unlike me; I NEVER go back to a restaurant that frequently in a short period of time, no matter how much I like it. The reason for the exeception in this case was my desire to share the experience with as many people as possible. Each time I went back, I had 2 or 3 newbies with me, and each time they all loved it.

        On my second visit, I finally got to try the smothered rabbit (available only for Thursday lunch), and it was every bit as good as I remembered from New Orleans. Probably my second favorite thing on the lunch menu (available every day) is the deep-fried crab-stuffed eggplant topped with shrimp in a cream sauce and served over pasta. The rabbit is $11.95, and the eggplant is $9.95. Both come with a nice small salad first, and they make a terrific remoulade dressing for it too.

        I was a bit disappointed by the beignets the first time I was there, but they've gotten better each time since. I still haven't tried their bread pudding, which is supposed to be very good.

        Oh, and best of all, they have New Orleans own Abita Amber beer on draft. If you want to enjoy a real neighborhood New Orleans restaurant without the hassle of a 5 1/2 hour drive, this is the place for you!

        1. re: iko.iko
          Dax RE: iko.iko Jun 8, 2008 11:24 AM

          I was there for lunch Friday. I had a perfectly serviceable, albeit somewhat bland, cup of gumbo and a 1/2 muffaletta that was fairly tasty. I need to get back and try that rabbit.

          1. re: Dax
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            iko.iko RE: Dax Jun 11, 2008 10:52 AM

            The rabbit was their main claim to fame at their NOLA-area restaurants; the seasoning is just perfect! It was so popular there that you had to be certain not to show up too late for lunch, or they might already be sold out for the day.

            The crawfish corn soup has always been a winner as well. My wife had it last time we were there and was very pleased. We also tried the crawfish rolls, which were quite good, but unless you plan to make them your main course (and you almost could), don't order them as an appetizer unless you're going to split them between at least 2 people (we split them among 4, which was plenty given the size of the rest of the meal).

            I agree that their gumbo is not the best I've ever had, but it's certainly respectable. I understand from a friend that Jubilee Joe's makes a very good gumbo; I need to get by there and try it.

            The muffaletta could benefit from a bit more olive salad IMHO, but otherwise, I think it's pretty darned good.

            1. re: iko.iko
              Dax RE: iko.iko Jun 11, 2008 12:24 PM

              Hmm, I didn't notice the crawfish rolls as an app on Friday? I will try to get back tomorrow.

              1. re: Dax
                Dax RE: Dax Jul 18, 2008 06:59 AM

                The bleu cheese dressing for the house salad that precedes the rabbit included sizable chunks of actual bleu. The rabbit dish itself looked like two legs/thighs, served with a cake of rice, swimming in beans and a few chunks of what I assumed would be andoille but tasted more like kielbasa. I thought the dish itself was a little on the bland side, but that does not mean it did not taste good. The (baked or rotisseried) rabbit was pretty well seasoned and easy to pull from the bones; the meat, plus rice and beans, was a very hearty meal for a 95 degree day, but with the a/c at full blast I was able to eat most of the dish before succumbing to a food coma.

    2. cook.p.everett RE: iko.iko Jul 18, 2008 04:12 PM

      From what I gather by looking at their website, Crustasian isn't exactly marketing themselves as a "restaurant". Looks to me like it's a bar that serves typically sub-par bar food...

      Check it out yourselves...<html><a href=http://www.crustasianbistro.net&gt;Cr... Bistro</a></html>

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