It was only a few minutes into the meal before I realized that this was the ideal restaurant for a date. Rarely do I value the mood, vibe, mojo as highly as I do the taste, aroma, ingenuity involved in creating a dish. But in the case of LaPlace, Hillsborough's latest iteration of Cajun fare, I realized the sum of all of those parts made that restaurant the best date venue I've come across in quite a while.
It wasn't too big, too crowded or too loud, though music I've come to enjoy from watching Treme played sweetly over the tastefully decorated space. It felt hip enough to make this mother of two small children, feel cool, which says a lot, without being pretentious.
The understated hipness began with the libations menu. A Ramos gin fizz ($7.75), made with lemon and lime juices, orange flower water, Hendricks Gin, egg white, powdered sugar and milk, was created in 1888 by Henry C. Ramos. Thank you, Mr. Ramos. Not only was it well balanced, it drew the attention of the table next to me as it was shaken for a significant period of time. The zesty froth was well worth any potential cramping endured by the barkeep.
That I enjoyed the menu as much as I did was no small thing considering how wussy my taste buds are regarding cayenne, an ingredient central in Cajun cooking. La Place is considered the Andouille capital of the world, the birthplace of that spicy sausage. I hate nothing more than asking a server if something is spicy hot, warning him or her that I have a low, low tolerance for heat, and to be misled. While the dish had a bite, it was still enjoyable and maybe even beefed up my weak tastebuds in the process.
On a menu ripe with Cajun classics like crawfish étoufféé, red beans and rice and shrimp po boys, two dishes in particular appear in a neat rectangular box with the heading sausages. The shrimp sausage with Andouille, buttermilk grits, stewed tomatoes and okra ($13.50), as well as the duck sausage served over dirty rice with collards, oyster mushrooms and gumbo jus ($14.50) both read like the elevated version of down-home classics, and neither disappointed.
Many other Cajun restaurants have struggled with the concept of restraint. Most dishes are heavy, and lack enough vinegar, citrus or brown sugar to cut through the fried shell of batter or the heat of its spices. I appreciated the delicacy of the LaPlace salad ($6), in which seasonal greens, sprouts, red onions, gorgonzola, wine poached pears and yes, precious lardon, were drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette. It could have used more vinaigrette and lardon.
The same can be said for the boudin balls ($7), a classic NOLA appetizer of deep-friend balls of pork, rice and chicken sausage. They were not too heavy, but more pickled onions and creole mustard would have been welcomed on the side.
Some of this menu's best items are hiding as side dishes ($3.50). The NOLA potato salad had the vinegary tartness I miss from my northern upbringing and included chopped green olives. Sorry y'all, but I cannot stomach the amount of mustard and egg that permeate the Southern iteration.
The side of Cajun maque choux was in some ways the best thing I tried: Creamy and fresh, the saltiness of tasso ham combined with the sweet pop of freshly shucked corn, peppers and onions. Considering that it is hardly corn season, I asked the highly capable server if the corn was frozen. No, she said, she sees them shucking ears in there all the time.
If you're like me and insist upon ordering dessert anytime you're on a date, then hope the Doberge cake is available. If it is, get it, and then get another one to take home. The classic New Orleans layer cake had the traditional chocolate pudding filling and was wrapped in a toothsome ganache, spiked with just the right amount of coffee.
Yes, LaPlace is the place for Cajun food.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The right place at the right time."