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Southern comfort

Josh Sens | Photos: Lara Hata | October 19, 2011 | Story Restaurants

How nice to walk into Boxing Room, the new New Orleans-inspired restaurant from the people behind Absinthe, and find that it goes easy on the Big Easy motifs. No murals of the bayou. No Mardi Gras beads. No attempts to pose as a stage set for Treme or stand in for a boozy haunt on Bourbon Street.

Sure, that’s faux alligator leather on the chairs and barstools. But the dining room that once housed Citizen Cake doesn’t deal in anything remotely like the Disney version of Dixie. Bedecked in burnished steel and polished hardwood, it’s a cheerful, neutral space that could serve as the stage for almost any kind of restaurant, California bistro or upscale noodle bar. It seems only fitting that the wheel-shaped glass light fixtures dangling in triplicate from the ceiling look more like doughnuts than beignets.

In the absence of heavy-handed themed decor, the task of re-creating a night out in N’awlins falls squarely on Justin Simoneaux, who cooked at the Moss Room and Coco500 and whose menu is a portal to the soulful South. Through it, the chef transports entries from the Cajun and Creole canon—from hush puppies, golden as the California hills in September, and glorious when dipped in pepper jelly, to a cast-iron cauldron of boiled peanuts, salt-of-the-earth characters that, as you devour them, hit you with a gentle cayenne kick.

Hardly does a Southern mainstay get left out—or mistreated. Building on a smoky tasso ham foundation, Simoneaux constructs a thick and complex gumbo, folding in new flavors throughout its prolonged simmering before finishing it off with thick shreds of smoked chicken and coins of housemade andouille sausage, kept on the stovetop briefly enough that they lose none of their essence to the stew. Tangy étouffée, bright red and roux-thickened, teems with sweet, plump crawfish that thrive in their surroundings. In the middle of the bowl, a mound of white rice (health-consumed heretics can opt for brown rice instead) rises like a levee in a lake. As for the shrimp po’ boy, it’s a far cry from impoverished. The shrimp are so abundant, they tumble, avalanchelike, from the tartar sauce–smeared roll.

On the rare occasion when a classic doesn’t appear on the menu, Simoneaux makes things right by appending it to a chalkboard list of daily specials, which works as both a temptation and a tease. On a recent Thursday, I saw no use in resisting the jambalaya, enriched with a crisp, confited duck leg, but I felt a pang of remorse for not turning up on Monday, which promised deliverance in the form of red beans and rice.

Tuesday nights make room for a fried-seafood platter, a dash of overkill, in my mind, given that the cooking already features plenty of batter and hot oil. Strategy is key as you navigate the menu. In a tactical error I’m still kicking myself for, I diminished one of my meals by starting off with crispy boudin balls—think Creole arancini, with chicken liver and ground pork shoulder as their core—followed by deep-fried alligator, its peppery coating encasing white meat that didn’t taste like chicken or like fish, but rather like a combination of the two. Only when my entrée—buttermilk fried chicken, in a hefty corn-flour skin—cast its hulking shadow across the table did I fully grasp the error of my ways. I enjoyed each item. But I don’t recommend this particular trifecta, unless your iPhone comes with a defibrillator app.

If only a server had saved me from myself, but the staff are not the types to stand in someone’s way. In fact, their Southern hospitality—several of those I spoke with hailed from Louisiana—verges at times on such solicitousness that it tests your tolerance for well-intentioned questions such as “Is everything to your liking?” and “How are we enjoying ourselves tonight?” Ask once. That’s understandable. But ask every five minutes, with oppressive optimism, and the diner begins feeling like there’s only one right answer. It’s the awkward restaurant-world equivalent of “Do these jeans make my butt look fat?”

Which brings us tactfully to dessert, where the talented Bill Corbet, a pastry chef known widely for his smart tweaks of convention, plays it mostly straight, with mixed results. I was far more sweet on the crumbly indulgence of pralines and cream than I was on the disappointing peach-and-cherry cobbler. Stingy with the fruit, it was all butter and crust, its cobblery suggestion of summery freshness reflected only in its name.

And yet, as a New Orleans funeral procession reminds us, in all of life’s occasions there is cause for celebration. And a dinner at Boxing Room holds more than its fair share. The well-crafted cuisine, imported from a region that, for all its fame, is underrepresented in San Francisco restaurants, shines against a bright California backdrop. Even if you’ve suffered through a mournful workday, you leave Boxing Room in lighter spirits, a jazzy spring and rhythm in your step.

BOXING ROOM
399 Grove St. (at Gough St.), S.F., 415-430-6590, $$$
reservations recommended, wheelchair accessible.



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