Sassafras Creole and Seafood Restaurant
2501 Leon C Simon Blvd., New Orleans, 504-288-3939
It's been a while since the Lakefront and Gentilly have had many restaurants worth making special visits to check out, but that's starting to change and the downhome Creole flavors at this updated neighborhood restaurant make a good showing for the new trend.
It's very easy to pass right by Sassafras without noticing the place tucked into the corner of a stripmall. Inside, it looks like a modern diner clean, open and fairly anonymous. It seems like it could be anywhere, but the food soon fixes that.
Service is efficient and unobtrusive. Maybe it's a little lacking in personality, but you didn't come here for a big floorshow anyway. The restaurant is busiest at lunch and brunch, a little quieter at dinner.
Things start off strong with the gumbo, always the first measure of comparison for a Creole neighborhood restaurant. Here, the roux is thin and dark and it's threaded with crab, including large chunks of claw meat, plus sausage and small shrimp. Most other appetizers should really be shared around the table like breaded eggplant, fried pickles or crab cakes. The spinach dip won't win any awards for creativity, but it does have a little more kick than the standard issue dip.
Some of the dishes here you already know pretty well the stuffed bell peppers, bursting with beef and shrimp, with yellow mounds of mac and cheese on the side; the salty, meaty red beans and rice loaded with pickled pork; the crunchy fried chicken with dark-beige skin. Others maybe you haven't seen in a while. For instance, this is a great place to get reacquainted with smothered okra. Some people shy away from an okra entree, fearing the texture, but that's not an issue when it's properly done, as is the case for this deep, trinity-laden, shrimp-speckled version. Look to the signature dishes and specials for the most contemporary, and often the most interesting, entrees. The catfish Orleans, for instance, starts with big sheets of fried grit cake, topped with fried catfish and then smothered with a buttery shrimp etouffee. Po-boys are made on a softer style loaf than the crunchy-crusted ones I prefer, but they are at least toasted to give an edge. The roast beef is excellent, with onion-strewn gravy that seeps out over your fries and the fried seafood is reliably good. At brunch, more classics add to the Creole soul power here: the chicken and waffles, the liver and onions or the fried catfish over grits that are rich as gravy yet still loose enough to shimmy on the plate like egg yolks.
The cheesecakes seem like they came out of the box, but there's no messing with the bread pudding. Gooey praline sauce covers a crusty rectangle that's like its own bread pudding loaf cake. The dark sauce is just a step short of caramel, and it's all liberally topped with chopped pecans.
There is a full bar serving some basic beers and wines and a few specialty cocktails.
Sassafras is a mid-range restaurant, where most entrees are in the teens. Portions are very large, and many people leave with enough leftovers to make a second meal.
Sassafras is the type of restaurant New Orleans people love, when they know where to find them. That used to be easy every neighborhood had its little hole-in-the-wall places with great food following the local tradition. Sassafras has a little different setting, but when you see the local families, the office outings, the cops on lunch break and the occasional UNO professor all digging in here, you know you've found the real deal.