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Whoah. What an assault on the senses it is walking into Orleans - the Britomart bar and eatery that has taken up residence in the space next door to Racket Bar in the cute cobbled Roukai Lane. Stepping over the threshold, you are transported to one of the time-worn jazz and blues bars of New Orleans. Well, sort of.
The menu says Orleans offers "music liquor kitchen" and first impressions are that there is more emphasis on the first two. A stage area built out of dark-stained timber has a piece of old-fashioned floral carpet marking the space for a drum kit and old piano, and seating is at high tables in the bar-cum-dining room.
The walls and shelves behind the bar are littered with memorabilia of the jazz and blues legends alongside the day of the dead icons that you find in New Orleans, and there's a certain night-time cosiness about the place regardless of whether you visit in broad daylight for lunch or during the evening.
The windows are deliberately and somewhat disconcertingly "yellowed" - perhaps to emulate the nicotine stains in original bars like these - and a patterned black pressed tin ceiling darkens the atmosphere further, while the sound system cranks out lively jazz numbers of old so that, in all, you can feel like you've arrived mid-party.
From its name I'd guessed that the cuisine would hail from the place where Mardi Gras and musicians once ruled the streets, and sure enough a clever fold-out menu reveals all manner of Louisiana favourites.
This carries on a trend we're seeing with other eateries of late serving cuisine originating from the southern states of the US. There are po boys and grits, waffles and cornbread. Diners sensitive to gluten must be loving this new wave where the menu holds all manner of options based around ground corn instead of wheat flour.
We started with a bowl of fried okra, that vastly underrated vegetable which, when done well (read "not slimy"), is deliciously soft and creamy with a subtle flavour, like a cross between asparagus and eggplant. At Orleans they serve it with a lively cumin- and lime-spiked aioli to make sure you get the point.
Next came a fat-lover's delight - a fried polenta pancake covered with pickled shrimps, slivers of pungent fennel and freshly torn basil. Strangely it reminded me of the famous Vietnamese-style egg and rice flour pancakes that are always cooked in plenty of oil to make the edges frilled and crispy. We were off to a good start.
Using salmon collars in a salad is a clever way to keep the costs low while packing maximum bang for your buck with the generous scattering of fresh herbs and greens. A serving of onion rings was less gratuitous, verging on measly, with a total of five in a small bowl, but at only $6 is it valid to complain?
Baked gnocchi showed the kitchen could use more than a deep-fryer and the neat nuggets, made with cornmeal, were tender and light, and the Napoli sauce rich and deep in flavour. A shower of pecorino sharpened the dish nicely. Hard to say where it fitted with the theme of the cuisine but we liked it anyway.
By the time our blackened chicken arrived, after a mix-up in the kitchen, we were already feeling replete and it could have been for this reason that our most expensive dish, at a mere $15 I might add, impressed us the least.
I've cooked this dish many times since falling in love with it in a backyard eatery in New Orleans and I adore its peppery, charred flavours, but this one fell short with a lack of seasoning, brined acidic red peppers and yoghurt curd too sharp for the dish. Perhaps the fried chicken and waffles that so many around us were tucking into may have been a better choice.
A dessert of freshly baked ginger gems were gems all right - warm rectangles of soft cake smothered in caramel sauce, with a delightful orange-scented cream.
Orleans is following the trend for serving up an affordable, casual, multiple-plate dining experience that, though it won't necessarily make a lasting impression, is perfectly capable of setting the scene for a good time, whether you're in for a quick work lunch or after a more serious evening of socialising. With the live music, up-beat staff and the flavours of Creole cuisine playing on your palate, you can forget where you are for a moment. Almost.
From the menu: Louisiana fried okra $5, 'Shrimp n grits' polenta pancake $10, Onion rings $6, Baked cornmeal gnocchi $12, Blackened chicken $15, Salmon collar $12, Ginger gems $8, Pecan pie with bourbon icecream $8.Drinks: Fully licensed
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