A warm Hayes Valley spot that punches up the Cajun trend with lagniappe, mirilton, and po'boys
DINE It does make a difference, I must say, when you step into a restaurant and find the people at the host's station smiling and nodding at you, riffling their stack of menus before showing you to your table — instead of not. The last time I made an attempt on Citizen Cake, a few years ago, at lunchtime, I found myself confronted by a rather steely-eyed maitre d' who advised me, in a spirit of what I took to be barely suppressed glee, that there was no possibility of seating my party of two even though the restaurant was all but empty. I left and did not look back.
If only for a marked change in tone, the Boxing Room, which opened recently in Citizen Cake's old haunt at the corner of Gough and Grove, is a welcome turning of the page. Just as welcome is the remodel of what was once a shirt factory into a wonder of woodiness, from the ceiling of exposed joists to the impressive swaths of sauna-like blond paneling along the rear wall. Best of all is the long, sinuous bar in place of Citizen Cake's boxy, glass-and-steel dessert cases; the bar's reassuring jiggle, like a well-banked S-curve on a freeway, softens the hard, high angles of the space. And while the floor (of poured concrete) is of a cold hardness that usually means reverberant noise, that isn't the case here. Even when the restaurant is nearly full, it's possible to have a pleasant conversation without having to raise your voice.
Are there bitter cold nights in New Orleans? The Boxing Room is one of the latest entrants in what seems to be spate of bayou-themed spots in our chilly city. As at Roy's, I felt a slight dissonance in eating the food of some faraway warm place while awaiting the little tongues of clamminess that would slither into the dining room every time somebody came in the front door. (The front door is gorgeous, incidentally, a masterwork of glass and iron, but very heavy and unwieldy.) The restaurant belongs to the Absinthe group, and the chef is Justin Simoneaux, whose name speaks for itself, at least if you speak French.
The obvious question is how Boxing Room's food stacks up against that of Criolla Kitchen, the new, Louisiana-accented successor to Baghdad Cafe in the Castro. As we might expect, there is considerable overlap, including red beans, handlings of mirliton (the cucumber relative), various versions of the po'boy, and fried chicken. The cooking of the Mississippi Delta is well-defined and has, for North America, deep historical roots. If there's a meaningful difference between the two menus, it's probably Boxing Room's upmarketiness; a couple of the main dishes pop the $20 boundary.
But most of them don't, and the tapas-like nibbles called lagniappe are just $5 each. (This might be a small joke, since the word supposedly means, more or less, "gift." Maybe the modest charge is the equivalent of shipping and handling.) Of these, the one that particularly caught our eye was the small cast-iron pot of Cajun boiled peanuts. We were expecting something flamingly spicy — Cajun is one of those words — and were surprised to find the legumes mildly seasoned and rather soggy, like the bits of wood that splinter from old decks in rainy weather. At first this was disappointing, but in true bar-food fashion, the peanuts built up a subtle momentum and, by the end, were nearly addictive.
You may have had grilled Monterey Bay squid ($9) before, but you probably haven't had it like this — with tasso (a form of spicy cured pork), fried okra, and aioli made with roasted garlic, all of it brought together into a voluptuous faux-stew. Just as good, if more conventional, was a little cast-iron pot of red beans and sausage ($6) — all the cast-iron pots, incidentally, amount to a small detail that makes a big impression — while a green-tomato ratatouille ($5) seemed underpowered, though beautifully diced.