Unless you count Red Lobster, there are hardly any true seafood restaurants in Central Arkansas. There are restaurants that serve seafood, of course, and some serve truly excellent fish and shellfish (the fish special at Brave New Restaurant is always a winner, for example). And there are more than enough catfish houses.
And then there's Cajun's Wharf, the king and granddaddy of local seafood spots for decades. Other than a few ill-fated years when it was part of the Landry's chain, Cajun's has been locally owned since 1975. Back when the local restaurant scene was less competitive and less crowded, it was the must-visit spot for occasions (I ate there before my senior prom in 1977) and with out-of-town visitors.
But while still popular, it's not the spot anymore. We must admit that our recent lunch was our first at Cajun's (lunch has been served for more than a year), and our dinner was probably our first in 15 or 20 years. We're not sure why. We love Capers and Copper Grill, Cajun's owners' other two restaurants. And we've been to Cajun's for drinks and to catch live music pretty regularly over the years.
It won't be nearly so long before we're back there to eat. We didn't love everything we tried, but there certainly were plenty of highlights. Let's start with those. Two appetizers that have likely been on the menu since day one are still stars: crab au gratin and oysters Bienville (both $9.95). There are more discernable shards of crab than might have been expected in the au gratin, the dish is perfectly creamy, the mushrooms add a nice taste complement, and the cheddar blanket brings it all together. Oysters Bienville is a great choice for folks who can't quite deal with raw oysters on the half-shell. These are served on the half-shell but are broiled. The oysters impart a great seafood flavor, but the main taste is the white wine-infused cream sauce and the melted, crusty, salty Parmesan. One odd and really inexcusable detail here: Both accompanying packs of crackers we opened were tragically stale.
Two more stars: the coconut cream pie and the chocolate creme brulee (both homemade and both $5.25). This is no normal coconut pie. The filling's texture is more like cheesecake and is studded with coconut. The graham cracker crust was perfect, and the whipped cream was covered in toasted and untoasted coconut. Don't miss it. The brulee is denser, thicker and less smooth than most, but it's very rich and chocolatey.
We walked into our Monday lunch to find the hostess stand abandoned. In a couple of minutes, the one overworked waiter — the only front-of-house employee we saw — arrived to seat us. There were about five tables of folks at 12:40, all seated along the windows with a great view of the river. Our cup of etouffee was decent but more than a bit steep at $6.50, particularly since it included only four tiny cocktail shrimp and two crawfish tails. We expected the barbecued shrimp ($12.95) to be New Orleans style with a thin sauce that is primarily butter and Worcestershire with garlic, scallions, lemon juice and some spices to provide a bit of heat. But it wasn't. Five excellently prepared shrimp — firm and plump — were topped with a sauce that reminded us a lot of the etouffee. The shrimp sat atop some fairly spicy grits; unfortunately, about a quarter of them weren't cooked enough, and crunchy grits are no fun.
We did get a side salad (only $2.25 when you have an entree), and it was excellent — tomato, mushroom, cucumber, pine nuts and goat cheese on a spring mix with a sweet, tangy house champagne vinaigrette.
We returned for dinner on a Thursday night (which is when we had the Bienville and the brulee) and the joint was jumping. At about 8:15 p.m., the large dining room was about three-quarters full; there were still about 15 tables' worth of folks on the deck, and about a dozen tables more enjoying the happy-hour guitarist in the bar as the headline band was setting up.
We chose the "six and six" ($22.95) and the coconut-pecan encrusted tilapia ($21.95). The former included tender grilled scallops that could have used a bit more herbs/spices but were still very tasty. Crispy bacon offset the creamy seafood-based filling in the shrimp. The tilapia fillet was huge, moist and tender. The coconut added crunch and a hint of sweet, and the scoop of fruit/tomato salsa was both sweet and savory. This was one good piece of fish. And the white cheddar grits were creamy and cooked perfectly.
The look and feel of Cajun's Wharf hasn't changed much over the years, though the place certainly has been kept clean and in good repair. The decor is definitely evocative of its name and true to what one would find smattered along the Louisiana Gulf Coast — but condensed into varying, textured vignettes featuring pier posts, boat oars, crab traps, weathered siding and tin roofs. Not surprisingly, there are fish tanks.
It was good to be back in the Cajun's Wharf dining room. We will be back soon.
Wine Spectator for years has recognized Cajun's Wharf for the excellence of its wine program, and the bottles are reasonably priced. We enjoyed a $15 half-bottle of Alexander Valley Chardonnay. Several selections are only $5 a glass during happy hour on "Wine Down Wednesdays."