Rouge is a tribute to New Orleans by Andy and Gretchen Husbands (and co-owner Peter White). Boston needs all the New Orleans tributes it can get, but Rouge is more important than that, because Andy Husbands (of Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel) is one of the young chef-owners in town who has an attitude about flavor as well as an attitude about life. With Rouge, he also shows a little restraint, both in the prices and the effects. This helps convey some of the relaxation of New Orleans, without actually attempting the signature dishes of its Creole or Cajun cuisines. For example, although chef Sal Fristensky worked at the Big Easy’s Commander’s Palace, he isn’t doing trout marguery, oysters Bienville, gumbo, jambalaya, or blackened redfish at Rouge. Or at least not yet.
About as close to classic Creole as the opening menu comes is the appetizer of poached oysters " coubion " ($7). This is a lighter tomato sauce than the New Orleans court bouillon, served in a small frying pan. You fish out small sweet oysters, cubes of mirliton (chayote, alligator pear, call it what you will), and slices of fennel and radish. It’s pretty good eating, especially with some of the eggy buttermilk bread from the basket. (The rest of the breadbasket is all Tremont 647: tiny corn muffins laced with cumin, whole-wheat sourdough, and a dip of lima beans mashed with garlic and olive oil.)
Fried green tomatoes ($9) are three slices fried so nicely they don’t taste green and sharp, but just like some other fried vegetable. The rémoulade sauce on the side is as hot as Chinese mustard, but good. But I don’t entirely approve of the accompanying salad of Maine crabmeat and shaved celery root; I would double the tomatoes and drop the salad, but it is Husbands’s style to load appetizers with several special tastes.
A special terrine of duck livers and meat ($12) also gained from the deadly rémoulade, and came with a livelier version of the salad without the crabmeat. The salad of frisée and tender beet greens was good but sparse, with most of the plate given to the candied walnuts, slices of golden beet, bits of blue cheese, and other decorations. Dieters needn’t worry about the " horseradish beet cream. " It’s tiny squiggles of two creams; not enough cream there to carry many calories.
Get up your courage and order the braised veal cheeks ($20). The meat has the texture of beef brisket, but a distinctively veal flavor. Reduced onions make a rich, sweet-sour sauce, and the buttery grits look like mashed potatoes but have much more flavor. Baby carrots and pearl onions round out the platter. Duck duo ($20) is not like other duck duos. The breast is roasted rare and sliced, but arranged around a cylinder of confit-duck hash, and surrounded by Brussels sprouts and dried cherries redone in a glaze.
Steamed native cod ($19) perhaps should be poached, as the fish itself is bland. But the accompanying broth/sauce, made from beer and garlic, is wonderful, as are the dots of tiny shrimp and littleneck clams in the shell. Fingerling potatoes make this look like a deconstructed chowder, but it tastes better.
Knife-and-fork fried chicken ($16.50) must be so called because it’s tender enough to be cut with the fork, and the ham-hock gravy makes it a little messy to eat by hand. I don’t know about the knife part. This comes with a little area of stewed black-eyed peas, collards done with an unusual sweet-sour flavor, and a flaky buttermilk biscuit ($3 as a side order, and worth it).
Rouge has a short but effective list of wines by the glass, of which the Rabbit Ridge merlot ($8 glass/$30 bottle) is just like a regular California merlot, only with the structure and elegance of a real wine. Brooklyn pilsner ($5) on draft has the cloudy look of some wheat beers, but a clean, lager flavor. The iced tea is brewed and served unsweetened, Boston-style, with lemon. There are some special cocktails, but they just remind me of a couple who got so smashed in New Orleans during an afternoon spent drinking hurricanes that they couldn’t remember anything they ate at Bayona, one of the fanciest restaurants in the city. (Fortunately, I took notes, and reminded them later of what a fine dinner they’d had.) Tea is served from china pots, and cappuccino is excellent.
Desserts at Rouge are frankly original (Andy Husbands, after all, is the inventor of the giant tater tot) rather than New Orleans–ish. Chicory-coffee pot de crème ($6) certainly refers to the style of New Orleans French roast, but the dessert is a rich pudding with a tuile-thin shortbread cookie. Spiced chocolate cake with pumpkin ice cream ($6) is two good desserts that don’t really go together. You could split it. Lemon-meringue tart ($6) is very tart but generally excellent: great pastry, lemony filling, almost-sweet meringue. " Jim Beam and Harpoon Root Beer float " ($6) is actually very good, mostly because Harpoon Root Beer is so good. The bourbon is mostly in the ice cream — no, it's in the root beer, too. Maybe it melted out of the ice cream.
Perhaps the most reverence for New Orleans is shown in the décor. First of all, this space — formerly occupied in turn by La Bettola and the South End Galleria — is small and crowded, just like in the French Quarter. You enter at the bar, but weave past the kitchen to get to the other storefront, which is the dining room. There’s the suggestion of a tin ceiling, sconce lighting, a hint at brocaded wallpaper, beige walls (but red brocade banquettes), and bare brick. The background music, which is very good Cajun, zydeco, and New Orleans R&B, doesn’t carry well into the dining room, and perhaps that’s just as well. Although I wouldn’t call Rouge quiet, the lower ceilings make it much less noisy than, say, Tremont 647.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com