Easy, but not cheap
It didn’t occur to me until after my third visit to the new Big Easy Café (15202 W. 119th Street, Olathe, Kan.), a New Orleans-style restaurant, but I don’t know what the expression “The Big Easy” actually meant.
I knew it had nothing to do with food, but what? Voodoo? Sex? I’ve been to the legendary Crescent City on the Mississippi twice and have seen the 1987 movie The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin at least once, but I have never heard an explanation. I called novelist Lou Jane Temple, who’s writing a mystery set in the French Quarter, and she didn’t know (but offered to look it up). The Internet was no help, so I finally called Beverly Gianni, the public relations director for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Gianni read me an old article from The Times-Picayune explaining that in the early 1900s there was a dance hall, probably in New Orleans’ red-light Storyville district. And according to tradition, either the dance hall was called The Big Easy or a specific dance often performed there was.
“But the nickname eventually got transferred to New Orleans itself,” said Gianni, “because of the gentle pace of life here and, so the article states, ‘sometimes rather lax morals.’ But I didn’t say that.”
And neither did I, though New Orleans is certainly more decadent than the squeaky-clean Kansas suburb of Olathe, where the pale brick building that contains the Big Easy Café has seemingly blossomed overnight into a brand-new development of shops and chain restaurants just off I-35.
Boasting wrought-iron railings and French doors that would look perfectly at home on Chartres or Toulouse streets in the actual French Quarter, The Big Easy Café seems the least likely neighbor to share parking space with such stores as Batteries Plus or the Mattress Firm. But there it is, with real (recorded) New Orleans blues wafting out of its front doors and the fragrance of cayenne and fried sweet potatoes drifting out of chef Kevin Thomas’ kitchen.
Unlike most of its corporate restaurant neighbors, The Big Easy is a family-owned operation, created by three members of the Eddy dynasty, a restaurant name that carries as much history in Kansas City as the Brennan and Alciatore names do in the real Big Easy. Dianna Eddy, who runs the restaurant with her father and uncle, has Louisiana blood in her veins: Her mother, Fareda, was born and raised in New Orleans, and many of the restaurant’s dishes, Dianna says, have Fareda’s blessing. The Big Easy isn’t the first bayou-style restaurant to make a foray into the Johnson County suburbs. A decade ago, the Magnolia Grill came and quickly went. And several miles east of the Big Easy, on the same street, is Copeland’s, the New Orleans-style restaurant founded by Al Copeland, creator of the Popeye’s fast-food chicken chain.
It may seem odd that spicy, crispy Popeye’s chicken (and accompanying side dishes) are served at the Big Easy Café, but that’s because the Eddys of Kansas City have owned the local Popeye’s franchise for years. But the restaurant’s servers informed me that the pieces of Popeye’s chicken are much bigger and juicier at the Big Easy than you’d get at the fast-food drive-through windows. However, the side dishes, dirty rice and mashed potatoes, are the same. And the signature buttery-tasting Popeye’s biscuits are served with every meal here, brought out hot in a plain or glazed-cinnamon version, wrapped in a cloth napkin in a snazzy metal basket. Go ahead and slather them with the soft butter whipped with maple syrup.
Although they may share a New Orleans theme, the Big Easy and Copeland’s are as different as are a po’ boy sandwich and jambalaya. Sleeker and more elegant, the Big Easy has a dining room that borrows from the French influence of New Orleans’ multinational history. The concrete floors are tinted the color of Georgia clay, the banquettes are upholstered in vibrant teal, and the cloth napkins are either lemon yellow or deep violet. The tables are covered in white cloths, draped with a sheet of white paper, and set with a gleaming black pepper mill and matching black ceramic salt and pepper shakers. There are iridescent glass panels, an eye-catching Mardi Gras street scene mural by local artist Terri Hare, and poles wrapped with painted metal “ribbons” to evoke the spirit of a festival, even though the ambience here is less raucous and noisy than you’d expect at a restaurant with such a bawdy name.
No, this is the upscale Midwestern version of the French Quarter, with smooth, polished service and dinners served on attractive china, all very artfully presented. And in true Louisiana tradition, the servers are startlingly candid.
“Do I want the crawfish-and-cheese fondue?” I asked one savvy waitress.
“No,” she said without hesitation. “It’s like, well, nachos. You’ll be much happier with the crawfish corn cakes.”
She was right. The three cakes ($7) — crispy on the exterior and soft with crawfish meat and dabs of red and green peppers and roasted corn inside — floating in a puddle of a mildly spiced rémoulade tarted up with a splash of barbecue sauce were worthy of a Hank Williams song.
I wish we had been talked out of the disappointing Zydeco Red Bean Hummus ($5), which was heavy on the red beans but too light on the garlic and spices. The warm buttered toast that came with the appetizer was more interesting than the bland dip itself.
And on the subject of spices, none of the Creole or Cajun dishes on the Big Easy menu is exactly fiery. Dianna Eddy told me, “Louisiana food isn’t always spiced hot. Just look at one of Paul Prudhomme’s cookbooks.”
So I did: Prudhomme, the most famous Cajun farm native to become a New Orleans chef and restaurant owner, uses his cayenne, black pepper, garlic, peppers, and vinegar with an even hand, but his dishes certainly have fire.
The Big Easy’s Pontchartrain Shrimp & Crab Creole ($14.50), a hearty and pleasing version of the Spanish-inspired dish, has just enough pepper and bite to make it intoxicating, not fiery. The chicken and sausage jambalaya ($12.50), generously laden with chunks of mildly spiced andouille sausage, is more soothing than heat-inducing.
One way to temper even the mildly spiced southern dishes is to eat a chilled dinner salad with the main meal instead of as an aperitif before the entrée. The cooling French Market salad ($3 with a dinner entrée), with assorted tender greens, chopped cabbage, onion, firm kernels of yellow corn, fat toasted croutons, and wafers of pepper cheese, is especially good doused with the fruity house-made pear-Pernod dressing, with just the essence of pungent anise flavor. Delicious!
Our server informed my dining companion that the crusty loaf of bread that served as the base for his shrimp po’ boy sandwich ($8.50) was baked in New Orleans for the restaurant. Alas, the bread went uneaten as he sullenly picked up one fried shrimp after another off the sandwich, dipped them in rémoulade sauce, and ate them.
“The sandwich just looked so big,” he whined. “It was too much.”
The sandwiches here are massive: The Muffuletta ($10) — a Sicilian creation from the French Quarter’s Central Grocery — piled high with spicy Genoa salami, prosciutto ham, cheese, and that juicy, wonderful olive tapenade, is nearly as good as any you’ll find in the real Big Easy. And you’ll have enough left over for lunch the following day. The restaurant offers three po’ boy sandwiches (shrimp, oyster, and a steak-and-portabella mushroom version), all named for a Depression-era sandwich created at a Louisiana riverfront bar and reportedly priced cheaply enough for the unemployed “poor boys” in the neighborhood to afford along with their beers. The sandwiches here, though, might be called “rich boys” because the steak-and-portabella creation ($11.50) costs more than a complete fried chicken dinner.
The flaky catfish dinner ($13.50), lightly breaded in cornmeal and fried crispy, is a boneless filet, lightly dappled with a crawfish cream sauce and served over candied pecan rice (with the emphasis on pecans rather than on candy), and is one delish fish. Tucked up against the filet was a nice, colorful assortment of sautéed vegetables, including green beans, red peppers, and purple onions — such a wonderful respite from the tired “medley” of soggy cauliflower, rubbery carrots, and mushy broccoli that so many local restaurants continue to shove at us.
On one visit, the wicker dessert tray boasted a variety of exotic pastries, including a confection covered with a Taj Mahal dome of golden spun sugar. But I was too full from devouring my giant dinner and all those damn biscuits. On another visit, the tray was limited to three desserts: a “bananas Foster” cheesecake made with fresh bananas, a pot de crème flavored with café au lait under a cloud of whipped cream, and a square of bread pudding perched, inexplicably, in a martini glass.
I chose the martini pudding, which also arrives under a bubble of whipped cream and is slightly warm and nutty. It was fair, by bread pudding standards, but I probably would have been more overwhelmed by something with a dome of spun sugar.
Sometimes it seems as if flying to New Orleans might be easier than driving to Olathe. One night I ventured out to the Big Easy during Friday night rush-hour traffic. Big mistake. A 19-mile trip from midtown took more than an hour. Getting to the restaurant, sometimes, is the not-so-Big Easy. But that’s not a moral judgment.
Contact Charles Ferruzza at 816-218-6925 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE BIG EASY CAFÉ 15202 W. 119th St., Olathe, Kan., 913-780-1854
Hours: Mon.-Thurs, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Food: Three Stars
Service: Three Stars
Atmosphere: Three Stars
Overall: Three Stars