595 Markham Street
Prix fixe dinner for two with all taxes and tip (without beverages): $65
It cannot be argued that New Orleans is a city known for its food. Cajun and Creole dishes with the addition of Spanish, Irish and even New England influences make the place a destination for visitors who love a good meal. My visit there is full of memories of shrimp po-boys, muffaletta, dirty rice and cocktails consumed sitting on a curb on Bourbon Street.
Toronto’s closest facsimile, however, left me with memories of US inauguration day as viewed from a television still sporting rabbit ears, and some heartburn that extended well into the next morning.
We were there for the prix fixe special, and arrived wondering if the place would be packed with ex-pats reveling in the new era. Instead it was eerily quiet, with a scattering of regulars sitting at the bar watching the news, that grainy inaugural speech aired and analyzed as a line rolled up the screen repeatedly.
Southern Accent offers a menu of Cajun and Creole favourites; comfort food with a dash of les bon temps. On paper, the $25 prix fixe looks like a great deal. There’s plenty of choices (more in person than on the website) in each category; there’s vegetarian options, and even some things that are not on the a la carte menu.
We started with hush puppies and the crawfish boil (regularly $5 and $8 on the a la carte menu). Service was slow, but friendly and some bread and hummus held us over until the appetizers arrived. The hush puppies were well-cooked; crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and while the accompanying garlic lime sauce was really one note of hot with little subtlety, these went down well.
Not so much the crawfish boil, which was four crawfish, potatoes, and toast atop a broth that could have been scooped out of the Red Sea. It was inedible and we promptly sent it back, something we almost never do. An offer to replace it with another prix fixe app was made, and then a 15% discount on one of the meals since we didn’t want either the mixed green salad or the beet soup available. This was a generous offer and reflects the really decent service we received despite the unbearable grub.
The mains arrived and left us distraught. The Bourbon Street chicken is, ostensibly, an homage to Chef Paul Prudomme, yet this appeared to be Cajun food as prepared by a 1950s housewife. The blackened boneless chicken supreme had the uncanny ability to be both spicy and bland at the same time. The accompanying garlic mash had no real indication of garlic and instead was weirdly sweet and vaguely watery, provoking us to revisit the menu to see if this is perhaps pureed cauliflower instead. The green beans were crisp, but under-seasoned and out of season, so they too came off as bland. Southern Accent’s website indicates that this dish from the a la carte menu ($20) is normally served with potatoes dauphinoise and grilled collard greens, which struck us as being a much nicer combination.
Collard greens are about the only nice thing happening in the giant mound of jambalaya. This showed up looking very much like a jar of spaghetti sauce atop a pile of Minute Rice. The tomato-based sauce does develop “Creole” notes after a few bites, but it’s harsh, as if it hasn’t cooked long enough for the flavours to really blend. The menu-promised “chicken, smoked ham and andouille sausage” turned out to be some chunks of ham and a couple of shrimp. There was no sign of the sausage or chicken, but we did get two dangerously sharp and unappealing pieces of broken bay leaf instead.
The entire meal was only marginally redeemed by dessert. Pecan pie ($7 a la carte) is a nut-studded gooey centre in a flaky pastry that was fabulous but could have been improved by warming it up. At New Orleans’ Camellia Grill this is likely to happen by flipping the pie upside down onto the hamburger grill, but we’d have settled for 30 seconds in the nuker. Bread Pudding (also $7 a la carte) is a hot bread and bourbon cube of sweetness, and is the first thing all night that made the husband smile. Coffee was surprisingly delicious, redolent with chicory and provoking comparisons to the stuff at NOLA’s Café du Monde.
I must stress that while most of the food was subpar, the service was sweet and friendly. Besides the proffered discount on the dish that was sent back, as well as genuine concern that we have something to replace it, the coffee did not appear on our bill. The welcoming hospitality of New Orleans was evident in our server, but the food really demonstrated a lack of love.
Southern Accent used to be considered one of Toronto’s best restaurants. I knew servers who worked there who were sent to New Orleans once a year on the restaurant’s dime to learn more about Cajun and Creole culture. Yet even the worst meals I ate while in that beautiful city were far above the quality of what we were served on inauguration night.
Sitting in Southern Accent listening to commentators on the TV offer their hopes and expectations for the new US administration, as well as their disappointments of the past eight years of the Bush regime, we couldn’t help but think of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I know the people of New Orleans are expecting great and positive changes from Barack Obama. Here in Toronto, it wouldn’t be asking for so very much to see some changes at Southern Accent that are a better reflection of New Orleans’s historic and much-loved cuisine.