Natchez, a new East Village restaurant named for a Mississippi steamboat, has almost erased the haunting memory of a meal at Paul Prudhomme’s long-defunct K-Paul’s New York, during which a wait staff afflicted with an overzealous joie de vivre yanked the Underground Gourmet, mid-appetizer, out of our seats and into a conga line that snaked forlornly through an empty dining room.
With its thin-cushioned banquettes and bare-bones décor, Natchez, by contrast, is no New Orleans theme park: The only culinary clues are the bottles of Tabasco on the tiny tables that tilt and sway when you cut into your food like in a cabin scene from Mutiny on the Bounty. (The restaurant is connected to a quasi-affiliated bar, where a request for a Sazerac stumped the bartender.) Located in the former home of Mugsy’s Chow Chow and Patio Dining, a space that over the years has become a sort of halfway house for wayward chefs, Natchez has its own ghosts to exorcise. Chef Shawn Knight’s aggressively seasoned, New Orleans–inspired cooking might just do the trick.
Stripped of the usual trappings like a voluminous wine list and plush surroundings, the kitchen dedicates itself to the food—inherently rich, intensely flavored Cajun-Creole fare. Consider, for instance, the hearty, compulsively edible andouille-and-duck gumbo: Pleasingly spicy, but far from scorching, it’s deftly thickened with a rich roux to the proper point between soup and stew and fortified with popcorn rice. A bowl of gumbo, a cold beer, and a surprisingly wieldy po’boy of crunchy fried shrimp tucked into a soft, Philly-cheese-steak-style roll smeared with sweet chipotle sauce and served with excellent homemade potato chips makes a fine Louisiana feast. But the rest of Knight’s short menu, which he tends to tweak almost nightly, offers less-obvious, more-sophisticated takes on Creole-style New York bistro cooking.
Sometimes he pours it on a little thick—like the chive-buttermilk dressing that weighs down a salad of whole romaine leaves, dappled with blue cheese and croutons. Entrées like potato-crusted, spice-rubbed redfish, accoutred with lump crabmeat and sweet tomato marmalade, although tasty, can seem overwrought. If that dish were an NFL defensive lineman, it would get a fifteen-yard penalty for piling on.
But even unctuous plates like a short-rib raviolo appetizer, a small arsenal of braised meat and mushrooms in an ultrareduced sauce under a pasta coverlet, begin to grow on you after a bite or two, once your Yankee palate makes the transition from relatively light and simple to deeply flavored and complex. In the grand tradition of New Orleans baked oysters, Knight’s are Rockefeller-rich, seasoned with herbsaint (an aniselike liqueur), coated with bread crumbs, and stuffed with bacon, spinach, and cheese. By comparison, coconut shrimp, another winning appetizer, seems like spa food: a quartet of firm, sweet, nut-crusted crustaceans with a lively mango-curry remoulade.
“Bacon-wrapped” is a phrase we can never resist, and Knight’s delicate spinach-stuffed rainbow trout, served with fluffy artichoke hush puppies, reminds us why: Fatty strips bind the flaky fillet, infusing it with great flavor. And although you might expect something called “soy-cane-syrup-lacquered pork tenderloin with bourbon sweet potatoes” to give you cavities, the charred-edge slices of meat turn out to be piquant and tender, fanned out over a bacon–Brussels sprouts hash.
For dessert, a frilly, fudgy, trashy dark-and-white-chocolate torte is like an old pickup with a string of just- married tin cans tied to the bumper, the one indisputable clunker on the menu, but superb warm banana-bread pudding with butter-pecan ice cream and praline sauce is as smooth a ride as Paul Prudhomme’s electric scooter.