Noting that Mardi Gras is this week, I sublimated my desire for a New Orleans getaway by spending way too long on the Internet reading about the characteristic Creole and Cajun dishes of New Orleans and environs.
Hungry for etouffee and blackened fish, I set out to see how that cuisine is translated into plates at the area restaurant that's been serving them up the longest.
Opened in 2001 on Transit Road almost to Swormville, Chester's Cajun Grill moved into a larger Cheektowaga venue last year. Transplanting regional cuisine to far-off lands can be a tricky business, as anyone disappointed by Buffalo wings elsewhere can testify.
Given its lineup of rich, filling, oftentimes spicy food alive with big flavors, it's no wonder how Chester's has survived. But now that it's serving up to twice as many customers, can it keep the good times rolling in the land of the fish fry?
The new space, which formerly held Elite Fine Dining, and before that Friar's Table, is outfitted with televisions showing sports. There's a bar surrounded with seats, and an adjoining dining room, done up in the purple, green and gold of Mardi Gras.
The menu includes a wide assortment of plainly American standards, like clams casino ($8/$13), chicken fingers ($9) and St. Louis style spare ribs ($17/$24). With one exception, they're not why I'd hit Chester's.
The menu offers all of the classic dishes Creole and Cajun dishes you've heard of, like jambalaya, etouffee, red beans and rice and gumbo, in a variety of sizes and combinations.
Owner Seth Halter doesn't claim authenticity anywhere on his menu, so complaints that its gumbo isn't as soulful as the one your friend ate in Breaux Bridge should be taken with a grain of rice.
Its gumbo ($3.50-$11) is solid, starting with rendition. It starts with roux, flour toasted in fat, that gave its broth the color of coffee. Then celery, onion and bell peppers, for another layer of flavor, and chicken, smoked andouille sausage and okra. Did you make a face just then? Chester's gumbo is another exhibit in the case against okra slanderers, who insist it's always slimy. Here it was just another mild green vegetable. Its chile heat was also non-hazardous, a simmer instead of a boil.
I showed mudbug rookies how to extract the tail meat from crayfish simmered in Cajun spices ($9). To paraphrase Janice Okun on chicken wings, there isn't much meat on the diminutive lobster cousins, but what there was is choice. You do have to work for it, but wet naps arrive with the order.
Buffalo shrimp ($8) didn’t require any work besides dunking their wing-sauce-soaked selves in blue cheese, but their stiff, chewy coats made them not worth the calories. Another second-thoughts appetizer was blackened crab cakes ($10). The thick, tarry spice coat, led by black pepper and cayenne, blared over the crab's delicate flavor like a heavy metal band at a prayer service.
The shrimp po-boy ($13) was a hit. Impeccably fried shrimp – crunchy coats, tender inside – were heaped on a sub roll with lettuce, tomato and spiced mayonnaise. I’d eat a plate full of those shrimp, in any context. A blackened catfish po-boy ($14) featured musky fish and powerful seasoning whose flavor punched through the bread and toppings.
The blackened shrimp dinner ($16, lead photo) was a letdown. The hush puppies, golf-ball-sized cornmeal fritters, were crusty and flavorful, albeit playing second-fiddle to Toutant's. But the shrimp were flavored with blackening spices that weren't seared on. The bed of Cajun rice was well seasoned, and the accompanying cole slaw was fresh, but the smoky pleasure of properly blackened shrimp was missing.
Crawfish etouffee ($20) was a savory saute of crawfish tails and celery, onion and bell peppers in a thick tomatoey sauce. There was plenty of crawfish tails, a poignant-not-painful spiciness, and fresh Italian bread for mop-up duty.
Fat Jack’s Louisiana Pasta ($17) was a spicy, garlicky, loaded Alfredo analog. Spiral macaroni was tossed with chicken, more of that smoked andouille sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes, and its owner made sure to take the rest home.
The spare ribs were the surprise hit. They were baked in an oven, not smoked barbecue-style, but they were big, tender and well-sauced. Pork came off the bone cleanly with each bite, and there was plenty of it, these being true spare ribs, not some meager baby backs.
Outstanding sides included garlicky collard greens heated up with chili flakes, gooey mac and cheese, and crispy onion straws.
Desserts included an average brownie sundae ($5), a tough-shelled cannoli with chocolate chips ($3) and fried ice cream ($4) that was a scoop of ice cream rolled in cinnamon sugar and crumbs, not battered and fried.
The cooking could have been better in spots, but Chester's offers many paths to a solid meal, including Cajun and Creole dishes that might not erase your pining for New Orleans, but can at least take the edge off. Given the confluence of landscape and culture that created the city, it's hard to channel the Big Easy.
Chester's Cajun Grill – 7 plates (out of 10)
301 Cleveland Drive, Cheektowaga (259-9461).
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: appetizers $6-$11, po-boys $11-$14, entrees $11-$24.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: Many choices on clearly marked menu.
*Read last week's dining review, on Sato Brewpub: