James Brown was belting his heart out one Saturday night at Restaurant Roux while chef Mike Robertshaw, busy at the stove, crooned right along. Many in the packed house might have joined in with the “I feel good” refrain, if only they could have heard it over the hullabaloo.
Who dat expediting those plates at the kitchen counter? None other than New Orleans native Matt Lewis of Where Ya At Matt food-truck fame. Lewis has another hit on his hands with Roux, a bright star in Fremont’s expanding restaurant universe.
No wheels on this venture. Roux inhabits the clapboard building vacated by the Buckaroo Tavern, gutted and redone in hip, urban style. White tile meets oyster-gray masonry on the walls. Elsewhere there is wood, beautifully grained, pieced and polished. A marble-topped bar lies to the left, the kitchen to the right. A U-shaped counter embraces both, with tables and big booths arranged around the perimeter.
Neatly chalked on a blackboard above the bar are recipes for classic New Orleans cocktails. But Roux’s scrupulous bartenders need no cheat sheets for mixing a mint julep or a sazerac or any of the original drinks dreamed up by “director of libations” Ian Cargill.
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Need rousing? Try “Eight Bells,” an herbaceous gin cocktail with a whisper of caraway. Need soothing? “Intimate Voices,” a bourbon drink with bitter, sweet and citrus undercurrents, should do the trick.
A different chalkboard lists the weekday lunch roster of po’boys and sides, the food truck’s repertoire redux. Dinner sings a different song, a ballad of the Big Easy in a French Creole cadence, but with some original riffs.
Start with snacks. For sure have the jalapeño-cheddar hush puppies air-kissed with honey and lemon. “Deviled” eggs are more accurately devilish: soft-cooked and divinely draped in smoky, sweet bacon marmalade sharpened with horseradish.
A pile of pig ears, slivered and fried, tossed with blue cheese, chopped hazelnuts and parsley, crackled with every salty bite. My companion took a dutiful taste; I devoured the rest.
Beyond snacks, the menu divides into small plates and large. One of the smallest is the best: two dainty pieces of breaded and fried rabbit saddle, ridiculously good, with excellent, eggy potato salad. Braised rabbit, a large plate, delivers a succulent leg joint cushioned by mustard greens and slick cornbread purée (think grits gone uppity) spreading into robust brown gravy.
There is nothing puny about charred chunks of grilled octopus that inject a taste of the sea into earthy black-eyed peas stewed in ham-hock broth. Nothing petite, either, about the whole Gulf oysters lurking beneath tagliatelle carbonara already plenty rich with bacon, buttery leeks and grated Parmesan.
Four barbecued pork ribs come with pickled shallots and “fizzy” grapes (injected with nitrous oxide so they tickle the tongue). The ribs’ root-beer glaze caramelizes to a bittersweet crust; the flavor runs bone deep. You’ll get messy eating them, but warm, wet cloth napkins are at the ready, just one of the niceties of service here.
You’ll need them again after peeling and beheading whole shrimp that top jambalaya like a Mardi Gras crown. Well-stocked with chicken and andouille, the tomatoey rice percolates with Creole spices without getting unruly. Other shrimp, submerged in a painfully salty swamp of red sauce and grits, didn’t fare as well.
What, you’re probably thinking, no fried chicken? Au contraire, mon cher. At weekend brunch, three craggy, crunchy, fist-sized chicken nuggets fresh from the fryer do a balancing act with two malted waffles hot off the iron. A bit of ham-hock jus in the maple syrup, served in a side pitcher, contributes an agreeably salty note.
Warm, wonderful beignets buried under powdered sugar are a treat morning and night, along with soft serve ice cream flavored according to the chef’s whim (recently salted caramel). Beet juice gives red velvet cake its vivid hue, but the pretty circular tower sparingly spackled with cream-cheese frosting tasted oddly pallid.
Not so the Bloody Mary, looking bloodier than most, thanks to beet juice. A wake-up call that grabs you boldly by the throat, it will do a lot to right the day when the good times have rolled too long the night before.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.