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Bayou Beat

[whitespace] Passionfish
Michael Amsler

Some like it hot: Passionfish is a cheery, down-home, family-style eatery where the gumbo helps shake the winter chill.

Passionfish spawns American favorites with a Cajun touch

By Paula Harris

THE SIGN OUTSIDE promises it all: "Burgers, Pizza, Cajun, Fish." Quite an ambitious undertaking for Passionfish, a new Graton restaurant inspired by the 1992 Alfre Woodard-Mary McDonnell movie set in the Louisiana swamplands.

The restaurant's menu is rather a swampland itself, traversing the culinary map to include such "American favorites" as pizza, burgers, steak, and pork chops; Italian pasta; and, of course, Cajun food. However, purists may gripe that some of the dishes, including the "Mardi Gras Burger" (bacon, avocado, cheese, mayo, and spices) and the "Passionfish Pizza" (shrimp, scallops, and cheese), are really faux Cajun.

While both Creole and Cajun cooking symbolize the food of Louisiana, Passionfish forgoes the French-inspired haute cuisine of Creole, and instead focuses on Cajun's homey, country fare. Wholesome and unpretentious, this food is all big-hearted portions and pungent flavors.

Passionfish is a cheery down-home family-style eatery with peachy-coral walls, and a blond-wood bar backed by flowery wall paper and strings of lights. On a recent visit, foot-tapping, feisty recorded Cajun accordion music buffeted the dining room, producing a wonderful lively atmosphere. "Don't dare turn it down," an elderly couple at the next table begged the barman.

The tables are plain black, stenciled with gold stars, and each is set with fresh flowers, containers of mustard and tomato ketchup, and several less familiar items, including cayenne pepper, a jar of gumbo filé, and four bottled sauces. The Larry's All Natural Bohemian Pepper Sauces (habanero, mango-habanero, red pepper, and chipolte, to be exact) are aged in oak and blended locally in Occidental. A note on the menu instructs the uninitiated: "Cajun food is not necessarily hot, so don't be timid. If you want it hotter just add the sauce of your choice at the table."

A cup of Passionfish gumbo ($3.95) melted the winter chills. The rich brothy soup was silky-textured and thick with the famous Bayou holy trinity of simmered green pepper, celery, and onions. Plus seafoood, including shrimp and tiny scallops. There's also a chicken and andouille (spicy smoked-pork sausage), and a vegetable version of the gumbo. (If ordering this, be sure and add some of the filé powder seasoning, made from the ground dried leaves of the sassafras tree, to impart a unique woodsy flavor.) The gumbo came with a wedge of moist, spongelike corn bread for swabbing.

The Cajun deep-fried rock shrimp ($6.50) were unfortunately water-logged and anemic-looking, with no discernible Cajun seasoning. On a later visit, the Cajun deep-fried calamari ($5.50) fared better. The batter coating was at least crisp and dry, though not hot enough, and there was still nothing to distinguish this appetizer as Cajun rather than, say, Italian or Spanish.

THE KITCHEN got back on track with the 15-inch diameter "Just Veggies" pizza ($14.95), which boasted a superior puffy golden-brown base, a light tomato sauce, ample cheese, and a good variety of fresh veggies, including onion, green pepper, artichoke hearts, red pepper, black olives, and avocado slices. The net effect was light, yet addictive, as we kept returning to the pan for "just one more" slice.

The roasted chicken ($7.95) was passable: moist but rather flavorless. It was served with a vegetable medley and a sloppy mixture of red beans and rice.

On a subsequent visit, the oven-fried Cajun catfish ($7.95) was quite a treat. The fish had a firm flesh and a mild, clean flavor and was enveloped in a thin, lightly spiced coating, with a zestiness that creeps up on you. This time, the rice and red beans tasted fresher and had a touch of pork flavoring. The dish also came with cornbread and crunchy coleslaw.

But the pasta marinara ($7.50) missed the mark, being nothing more than a bland heap of lukewarm linguine topped by a watery tomato sauce, and served with none-too-garlicky garlic toast.

The housemade desserts were hit and miss. A pear bread pudding ($2.75) looked unappetizing and stodgy, and was served directly from the microwave via the fridge or possibly freezer. It arrived steaming hot on the edges, stone cold in the center. The apple pie ($3) was much better, boasting a crumbly buttery crust and chunky apple slices. But it was lukewarm and was accompanied by a bland whipped topping.

Passionfish has a modest wine list, but beer seems to be the order of the day with most of these dishes. Several are available on tap, including Redhook ESB ($3 a glass), a deep-amber ale full of barley malt, with a semi-sweet, clear finish.

Passionfish has good potential--if the kitchen can correct the food temperature hiccups, and especially if the menu focuses more on traditional Cajun cuisine. Fortunately, this may well be a possibility, since the owners are experimenting, and it's rumored that crawfish étouffée and other Bayou staples may surface on the regular menu.

So, pull up a chair, crank up those accordions, and laissez les bons temps rouler!


Passionfish
9113 Graton Road, Graton; 823-9003
Hours: Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesdays
Food: American and Cajun
Service: Friendly, but inconsistent
Ambiance: Relaxed family-style
Price: Inexpensive to moderate
Wine list: Small selection

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From the January 21-27, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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