Crescent City Redux
Gumbo's: New Location, Same Good Food
Gumbo's710 Colorado, 480-8053
Lunch: Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm
Dinner: Sun-Thu, 5:30-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30-11pm
For several years in the mid-to-late Nineties, my favorite Louisiana-style Cajun-Creole restaurant in the Austin-area was a great little chef-owned place in Pflugerville called Gumbo's. Baton Rouge natives Michael and Yoli Amr were the founders of Gumbo's, with Yoli handling front of the house duties and chef Michael Amr doing a very capable job on the range. The only problem I ever had with Gumbo's was that it was just too far away for me to eat there as often as I would have liked. At some point, the business outgrew its Pflugerville strip-center location and the Amrs moved the restaurant to Round Rock. Not long after I heard they'd moved to Round Rock, I began hearing the rumor that Gumbo's was coming to downtown Austin. Based on my regard for Michael Amr's cooking, that was news to get excited about.
When it was finally confirmed that, indeed, there was to be a downtown Gumbo's location in the ground floor of the historic Brown Building (recently converted to residential lofts), I called to check in with the Amrs and welcome them to Austin. Much to my concern, I was told that the couple had sold the restaurant, name, concept, menu, and all to a chain operation called Fired Up Inc. owned by Creed Ford. I was informed that while Michael Amr remained with the company as a consultant, he would not be doing the cooking. I was still determined to try the new Gumbo's but I approached my first visit with some trepidation. Would the restaurant have the same charming ambience and wonderful food or would it now be just some slick, plastic "concept" restaurant with no soul?
I need not have worried. The very capable Fired Up team has created a thoroughly delightful new restaurant in a bi-level space decorated with framed Mardi Gras posters and ornate iron grillwork. Louisiana music plays jauntily in the background, and the festive atmosphere and décor are very evocative of the Crescent City. The menu is somewhat larger than the one I remembered, but Michael Amr's signature dishes such as Crawfish Eddy, Fish St. George, Tenderloin Yoli, and the luscious New Orleans-style custard are now carefully crafted by chef Steve Warner and his very able staff. The new version of Gumbo's has made the transition from mom-and-pop shop to a classy, upscale chain operation. It definitely makes the grade.
The one admonition I would make before a visit to Gumbo's would be to pace the meal carefully. There is an abundance of good food here, and you don't want to hurt yourself. On a recent visit to celebrate my birthday, our group of four ordered three appetizers to share and were amply rewarded. Crawfish Eddy ($9.95) is a large bowl of succulent crawfish tails in a rich tarragon cream sauce which we sopped up with a few of the warm demi-baguettes from the bread basket. The shrimp cocktail ($9.95) has to be one of the most impressive renditions of that Gulf Coast standard I've ever encountered. Large, plump shrimp are artfully arranged on a bed of tastefully dressed greens surrounding a bowl of horseradish-hot red cocktail sauce sporting even more crustaceans, making a total of 12. The platter is garnished with carved cucumber slices, tomato wedges, Italian peppers, and good black olives: equal parts presentation and satisfaction. For crab lovers, the crowning glory of the appetizer list would have to be Crab St. Helen ($12.95), veritable mountains of sweet, delicate crabmeat in earthy artichoke bottoms complemented with a lemon butter garlic sauce. If there's a crab lover in your party, they may not want to share this bountiful offering. It's simply divine.
The entrée portion of the menu features shrimp, crabmeat, crawfish, catfish, and salmon prepared in a variety of methods with several complementary sauces. Meat eaters can choose from certified Angus beef, pork tenderloin, or chicken, and there are plenty of pasta options as well. On my first visit to the new Gumbo's, I tried blackened catfish ($13.95) topped with crawfish étouffée and found, even though the catfish fillet had a perfectly tasty blackened crust, both the fish and the crawfish tails in the étouffée were somewhat mushy. On a return visit, my companions went with seafood and I opted for steak, just out of curiosity. Steak portions here are for serious meat eaters. Tenderloin Michael ($28.95) is a 12 oz. portion of blackened Angus beef in a red-wine-and-pepper sauce topped with sautéed crawfish and béarnaise sauce. The steak was cooked exactly as ordered (medium rare) and the crowning fistful of sweet, firm crawfish tails added a rich counterpoint that made the dish impossible to finish. (It did, however, make a filling lunch the next day.)
The seafood choices at our table that evening demonstrated a timing problem in the Gumbo's kitchen. Two diners at our table ordered steaks, and two ordered seafood. The steaks arrived piping hot, cooked perfectly to order. The seafood plates, however, suffered from an obvious timing glitch. The elegant Salmon Rockefeller ($22.95) is a large piece of blackened salmon served with sautéed crabmeat and creamed spinach in a lemon butter garlic sauce. The fish itself was wonderful, toothsome, and flaky under its crisp, blackened crust, but the pool of sauce underneath was cooling fast, already congealed around the edges when it arrived at the table. The same was true with the blackened shrimp ($16.95) over crawfish étouffée. Skillet-hot shrimp were served in a lukewarm bath of étouffée. The flavors of the seafood dishes were still wonderful, but the time lapse between saucing the plates and finishing the entrées should have been much shorter.
Stuffed as we were, we knew the job at hand demanded that we order dessert, so sacrifices were made in the name of journalism. For my money, the most distinctive dessert at the original Gumbo's was the New Orleans-style custard ($6), a quivering pyramid of sweet vanilla richness in a burnt sugar caramel sauce. While the signature custard still tops the dessert menu, they've now added a chocolate version that's even better than the original, if such a thing is possible. Chocolate lovers will swoon over this creation, which is not overly sweet but allows cold, dense chocolate velvet to melt on the tongue with every bite. Running a close second in the chocolate lover's department would be the chocolate bread pudding ($6), where a warm slab of bread pudding rests in an exquisite puddle of cream Anglaise, under a melting scoop of homemade cinnamon ice cream. Truly focused consumption by four chocolate lovers was necessary to eat the whole dessert before the ice cream became one with the Anglaise but somehow we managed.
Service at Gumbo's is pleasant and professional, with well-informed servers who can ably describe the dishes on the large menu. Good advance word of mouth has already made Gumbo's a busy place, and reservations are a good idea, even on weeknights. Lots of hard surfaces make the dining rooms pretty noisy, and a few too many tables are placed a little too close together in the main dining room to accommodate the eager crowds. On our second visit, a member of our party found herself in a very busy traffic pattern where departing diners and busy waitpersons alike passed her seat, consistently bumping her with elbows, purses, plates, and trays. After several bumps, she positioned her chair to close the very small gap between her chair and the table behind, and even then, waitpeople continued to try to pass between them, oblivious to her discomfort and unwilling to walk around the other way. One less table per room might solve that problem.
Overall, I'm very pleased to have a Gumbo's outlet conveniently located in the downtown Austin area, and I'll be sure to go back. Any glitches we experienced seemed to be borne of popularity and the staff's valiant attempts to satisfy as many diners as possible at the same time, not exactly a bad problem to have as restaurants go. I'm betting that with some tightening up in the kitchen and a reworking of dining room traffic patterns, the problems we saw will disappear and the good times will roll at Gumbo's for a very long time.