423 10th Street
Gretna, LA 70053
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
One thing I love about the West Bank is the incredible range of eateries found deep in its diverse neighborhoods. Café Etienne is one such place, but the pleasant surprise here is not some exotic ethnic cuisine but rather bedrock New Orleans flavor. It's a mid-range restaurant specializing in generous renditions of down-home Creole classics with some interesting and creative twists.
Café Etienne is in the former home of Cottage Café in downtown Gretna, and it is indeed very much a cottage. Set back a bit from the street and fronted by a picket fence and garden, the place sets a homey tone right away. Inside, there is a large bar area and a series of dining rooms that are dimly lit, but in a handsome way. Local art adorns the walls and bud vases add color to each table. For a small place, there are plenty of private nooks suitable for business discussions over lunch. The West Bank has innumerable civic clubs and business groups, and many seem to meet here for luncheons.
One hallmark of a good family-run restaurant is the eager-to-please approach to service, and Café Etienne hits this mark squarely. The owner or his mother will usually welcome you, and likely one of these two will serve you. They leave no doubt that they are hoping you'll return. They're attentive and engaging without being overbearing.
While the set up is familiar at Café Etienne, creative touches help set its cooking apart. For instance, a recent appetizer special was a stuffed artichoke, but instead of the usual dressing crammed between the leaves, this steamed artichoke was hollowed and then filled with fried shrimp, catfish and chunks of artichoke heart all drizzled with cream sauce. It was original and fun. Some of the dishes have unusual names at Café Etienne, but you'll recognize the flavor concepts. "Sha Sha shrimp" is shrimp cocktail, and an exemplary version at that, with huge boiled shrimp perched around the rim of a martini glass. The same impressive shrimp get a bath of butter, pepper and lemon for BBQ shrimp, and it's worth sopping up every bit of the sauce.
Solid fundamentals and creative interpretations continue with the main courses. The chicken a la Lucien is a boneless cutlet propped up as a pillar, speckled with parsley and dusted with parmesan and stuffed with a meaty dressing of andouille and crawfish. The fried catfish is thin as a chip and mounded with seafood stuffing, then liberally coated by a lemon and wine sauce equally heavy on the garlic. Crab cakes are shaped like giant meatballs and feature exceptionally thick, crunchy crusts, though they are a bit short on actual crabmeat. Some dishes are excessively heavy, like a grilled tuna steak boasting three competing sauces when one would have made a better impression. The daily lunch specials follow a predictable local pattern, starting with red beans and rice on Monday and ending with fried seafood on Friday. There are usually other specials with more verve, like a recent pan-seared flounder with the unexpected Asian touches of a Thai-style peanut sauce and vegetable fried rice. Entrée salads, burgers and po-boys complete the menu, which also has kids meals.
Desserts tend toward the homey here. Cheesecake and pecan pie were fine, though anonymous, while the bread pudding had a memorable bourbon sauce and whole pecans in the mix.
There is a full bar. The basic wine list is typical of a neighborhood joint, but the pours are very generous. As mentioned above, of course, these are folks who want you to return.
Café Etienne is a moderately-priced restaurant, with most entrees in the mid-teens. Daily lunch specials are about $10. Most appetizers are between $8 and $10, but the portions are so large that solo diners might want to forego them. Two people can have full meals with drinks for about $60.
Café Etienne is essentially a neighborhood restaurant that features the classics while going above and beyond expectations both in creativity and sourcing (especially with seafood). Casual but professionally run, it's a versatile place, equally suitable for a weekday lunch or a laidback celebration. It's one of the better West Bank restaurants and it can hold its own against most of the neighborhood restaurants of New Orleans proper. It's worth seeking out and should be kept in mind next time you're hungry in Gretna.