Big-flavour Cajun in a calm setting

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: It’s tough to conjure up the Big Easy – or just a decent restaurant – when pulling up in front of this establishment. But good things do sometimes come in small strip-mall packages. Inside all is tasteful charm, with aubergine walls, plum-coloured tablecloths and large (albeit artificial) trees dominating the centre of the smallish room. The effect is more elegant continental than Mardi Gras, which may reflect the fact that owners Mike and Mira Djurdjevic – she does the cooking – are natives of Serbia who came to the Toronto area 20 years ago. Having discovered New Orleans flavours when Mike was a waiter at another Cajun eatery, they’ve had three such restaurants of their own in the past 18 years with two stints in the current location, the most recent starting two years ago.

ON THE PLATE: Though we’ve never been to New Orleans, over the years we’ve eaten and cooked a lot of Cajun food, and can say with some confidence that this is the real deal. The spicing is complex and assertive, and there’s a real commitment to fresh fish and seafood. Each day there are at least four fish varieties on offer (ranging from catfish to tuna swordfish, and priced from $20 to $28), and these come blackened – seasoned with Mike’s own mix of 20 herbs and spices, and then seared at high heat.

Chef Mira has an admirably light touch. Her shrimp, mussels, squid, scallops and fish are all taken off the heat when they’re just cooked, so they remain moist, tender and bursting with flavour. She shows the same delicacy with the tender-crisp vegetables that accompany the fish.

Both the 10-ounce New Orleans strip-loin steak ($24.95), blackened and served with cognac cream sauce, and the rib-eye steak ($26.95) that’s on special both nights we go to the restaurant are of high quality and perfectly cooked. Other meat specials can include veal, lamb chops and pork tenderloin.

SECOND HELPINGS: Not to be missed is New Orleans “gumbo ya ya” ($5.95), a thick, dark soup (from its base of roux, a mix of flour and butter or oil cooked until it’s toasty brown) with chicken, smoked sausage, rice, onions, celery and green pepper. A lighter, subtler, splendid seafood gumbo ($6.95) is made with mussels and shrimp.

The Cajun calamari ($8.95), which are meltingly tender, come with a knockout “Creole remoulade” sauce, as does the remoulade spinach salad ($5.95). And for a serious New Orleans chow-down, there’s the jambalaya for two ($49.94), a huge serving of rice with ham, sausage, chicken, mussels, shrimp, fish and crayfish.

A simple but winning serving of bananas foster ($5.95) – bananas cooked with dark rum and brown sugar – rounds things out beautifully.

TAKE A PASS: The Monticello salad ($5.95), with its simple oil, lemon and vinegar dressing, is ho-hum. We also find that the spicy rice alongside the blackened fare makes for too much of a hot-pepper blitz.

AT YOUR SERVICE: Though he usually has a helper, Mike dominates the front of the house, and his friendly, attentive service gives the place much of its warmth. He checks frequently with guests and likes to tease them good-naturedly.

EXTRAS: The Djurdjevics make everything medium spicy – and that’s not watered-down Canadian medium – but are happy to add more spice, or to remove it altogether. The lunch menu on Thursdays and Fridays features lighter dishes at lower prices.

PRICE RANGE: Soups and salads are $5.95 to $6.95; seafood appetizers run from $8.95 to $9.95. The entrées range from $16.95 (for the vegetable Creole pasta) to $25.95. Homemade desserts are $5.95.

BOTTOM LINE: Big-flavour Cajun food in a calming atmosphere, far from the madding crowds of downtown T.O.

Stars are awarded for food, service and atmosphere. Reviews are based on two anonymous visits that are paid for by the Star.

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