The faux-weathered atmosphere at Parrain’s at first seems like a chain restaurant. But when the food arrives, that impression evaporates. Meals are so good that it is worth driving out from New Orleans, which of course is a city with no shortage of great restaurants.
Many of Parrain’s specials smother fresh or fried Gulf fish in rich Creole stew. This creates tension between the simplicity of fresh seafood and the complexity of spicy, buttery stews. Eggplant Ponchartrain replaces fish with fried eggplant cutlets and smothers them under “Ponchartrain sauce.” This heavenly concoction is thin, buttery hollandaise filled with lump crab meat and capers. It’s a decadent way to start a seafood dinner.
Entrees come with either salad or coleslaw; slaw is the better choice. It is not overdressed; thicker cut cabbage helps to ensure this, and the piquant dressing is dotted with crunchy peanuts. Breadsticks that come with dinner are soft and buttery with their own crave-worthy appeal.
The menu is so full of appealing options that we were hypnotized until our server said that the most popular dish for locals is the humble Barbecue Drum with Dirty Rice. This does not stand out on a menu that offers such beguiling dishes as The Delacroix and The Vermillion and a roster of complex sauces. But when we taste the drum, we get it. The fish is rubbed with Cajun spice and fully torched over a hot flame. The fillet’s thick skin becomes ash, an inedible placemat for a pillow of impossibly moist fish. The technique is like a Southern answer to cedar plank salmon. It elevates the humble drum to succulence that explains why it’s sometimes called “poor man’s lobster.” The toothsome dirty rice, studded with sausage, avoids the pitfall of oiliness typical of lesser dirty rice.
In order to test the kitchen’s mettle against a classic, we order crawfish ettouffee, which can be had 1/2 and 1/2, with equal portions of stew and fried crawfish tails. The etouffee stands up mightily against others we’ve had in Louisiana. It is buttery and spicy with delicate vegetable aromatics. The fried tails are a nice counterpoint to the stew. Too many other deep-fried little crawfish tails are overwhelmingly bready, but the breading on these is so good that we don’t mind. The secret ingredient in these crunchy, curly, popcorn shellfish tastes like a generous shake of “magic” (MSG) Cajun seasoning. Whatever it is, it’s delicious and we can’t stop eating it. A crunchy battered tail tipped in a bit of etouffee is a happy marriage. A few shakes of Tabasco adds a lot to these crunchy tails as well.
If the food isn’t enough to convince you to make the detour, know this: we’ve never been to a restaurant this good that serves pints of PBR at dive bar prices.