By its very nature, Louisiana cooking is a creature of adaptation, one with a strong identity that’s still fueled and invigorated by new influences and ideas.
But since I started visiting Sac-A-Lait, I also can see the door for interpretation opening a bit wider. It must to accommodate a seafood pasta ($29) made with crab roe vermicelli, the lusciously briny stuff worked right into the noodles, changing both their flavor and texture, all coiled beneath a fried soft-shell crab. Seemingly simple, compulsively delicious, it’s highly original and also exuberantly of Louisiana.
I hadn’t before seen, or even considered, turtle boudin ($14), a dense, incredibly rich, crumbly textured link, which forgoes the rice, adds lots of blood and tastes like black pudding born on the bayou.
And I’ve had chaudin, the Cajun butcher shop specialty of sausage-stuffed pig stomach, though never before made with duck and served up as a brunch burger ($17), with the shiny, stretchy casing as taut as a balloon before the first bite, waiting under a slab of bacon and a neatly folded egg.
This is business as usual at Sac-A-Lait, a restaurant with an approach to rural Louisiana flavors that is refreshingly different, brashly confident, occasionally mystifying and always interesting.
New in the Warehouse District, in a soaring, repurposed industrial chamber of brick, glass and cypress, Sac-A-Lait is a large restaurant drawn with a rustic hand but also with a close eye for detail. At the hard-working oyster bar, chefs butcher fish, and shuckers open specialty bivalves, like the off-bottom-cultured examples from Alabama’s Murder Point oyster farm. Handmade chairs and bare wood tables fill the room; family hunting photos line the walls. The sturdy wooden bar glows with ranks of round bulbs like a theater marquee.
You might expect all this from a celebrity chef or one of the major local restaurant groups. Instead, this impressive rendering of rural Louisiana modernism was brought directly from the countryside that inspired it.
It’s the second restaurant for Cody and Samantha Carroll, young husband-and-wife chefs who were previously little known in New Orleans. In 2010, fresh from culinary school, they opened Hot Tails, a casual eatery in New Roads where they boil the crawfish Cody’s family grows on their farmland in Point Coupee Parish.
In 2013, the couple together won the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, an annual chef competition. The subsequent attention propelled plans for a higher-aiming restaurant.
Their cook-off-winning “lost fish” ($26) returns, expanding on the idea of a fried fish plate. Meaty fillets (flounder, most recently) are seared in an egg batter, in the manner of pain perdu, for a lacy, crisp-edged crust, finished with a robustly seasoned shrimp étouffée and rice contained in fried orbs of calas.
The gumbo ($10) conceals smoky slivers of frog leg and herbaceous-green alligator sausage in a deep-dark brown roux, and the crab and peach salad ($16) looks like a crabcake but is bound with whipped goat cheese — tasting fresh and airy and accentuating the crab’s sweetness — under thin, peppered peach slices folded like petals.
Among the salvos of good ideas, there have been misfires. I believe in the concept behind the venison ($29), which is based on a hunting camp classic of fried back strap with red onions, now refashioned with gnocchi replacing the customary fries. But doughy gnocchi and an uncharacteristically dainty portion have undercut this potential powerhouse.
Others dishes are too strange to rectify — namely a dessert ($10) of sweet potato slices, tempura fried like you’d expect from a bento box lunch but with powdered sugar bringing to mind beignets before the fierce heat of pickled chiles flings this finale off into the outer reaches.
Not everything is so wild, and the more straightforward dishes more than hold their own, like delicately fried squash blossoms ($12) and chargrilled oysters ($14) with a smoky, bacon-bolstered butter sauce as strong as chipotle.
Still, when you see someone order the smoked fish plate, you’ll want one, too. It arrives as a cloud of smoke captured under a great glass bulb, which is released at the table with theatrical flourish. Voila! A chunk of smoked cobia and a slab of cambozola, the creamy, strong blue cheese, a dapple of choupique caviar, pickles and jam and whips of tarragon. It’s hard to believe the fish and the cheese will go together so well until their flavors spread across the palate, escorted by a subtle veil of smoke. It’s also hard to believe the price — $28 for an appetizer that should be shared but also could easily be dispatched by one.
Elsewhere, prices have moved down a notch since Sac-A-Lait opened in March, swinging for the fences and sometimes inducing sticker shock.
There’s been some schedule tweaking lately. The restaurant has ended Sunday brunch and added Friday lunch (where the chaudin burger will return). There’s room for change elsewhere. While the beer taps offer a tour of local breweries and cocktails work in Louisiana-made spirits, the wine list feels scant for such an ambitious restaurant.
And there is no mistaking the ambitions at play here. Sac-A-Lait makes a bold statement about Louisiana cuisine, showing how familiar flavors, and entire dishes, can maintain regional relevance even as they arc toward the cutting edge.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.