I wasn't looking for a bargain as I made my way down the stone steps into the dark basement that is home to Bourbon Street Hideaway.
But what I found Thursday night was not just some stellar Cajun – and American – food, but a real affordable way to enjoy some of the best eats in downtown Fort Wayne served in one of the city's coolest spots.
Every Thursday features a $7 special menu and $7 martini menu at the restaurant, hidden under the Columbia Street West nightclub. The specials are smaller versions of many of the restaurant's staples, but that is perfect because these smaller portions are plenty for one. Entrées off the regular menu almost guarantee a take-home box.
The first $7 special I had was a Cajun classic and the restaurant's signature dish – jambalaya. What I received was a large pile of the rice-based New Orleans staple with two jumbo shrimp perched on top. This rice dish was fantastic, with the classic New Orleans holy trinity of onions, celery and bell pepper, and diced tomatoes in a spicy but slightly sweet tomato broth. It also had tender pieces of chicken and spicy andouille sausage, which is the key to a good jambalaya.
And even though it was only $7 and supposedly smaller than the norm, I still had some to take home.
The best item I had at Bourbon Street, however, had no New Orleans flair at all. The filet mignon with mushroom sauce included two 4-ounce medallions that were fork-tender and about as juicy as they could be. The red wine-mushroom sauce covered the plate, had plenty of big white mushrooms and was not too aggressive.
And if the medallions weren't outstanding enough, they were resting on top of a mound of addictively rich and creamy smoked gouda grits that were so good, I think I could have eaten a bucket full of them.
Those grits also lifted another not-so-New Orleans beef dish that I really enjoyed. The braised Grillades were more like pot roast than steak and had a more profound beefy flavor. They pulled apart easily and were tender without being mushy and overcooked. The gravy for this dish was thicker and more prominent than the sauce on the filets and added to that from-home, stick-to-your-ribs quality of this dish.
A pair of fried entrées proved favorable, too. The Honey and Almond-glazed Cajun Fried Chicken had a nicely seasoned breading that was crisp enough to hold up to the sweet glaze. The almond slices were sprinkled on top but were still a tasty addition. There was no issue with the smashed potato side, but the creamy maque choux – corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic and celery – begged for a little salt.
The Crispy Smothered Catfish was also really crispy, which also made the crawfish étouffée on top work properly. The fish was moist and sweet and with two fillets, it was a hearty, pleasing dish.
Speaking of that N'awlins Crawfish Étouffée, which I also tried on its own from the $7 menu – it could have been great. It was decent, with a pile of perfectly cooked white rice in the center and the creamy, spicy étouffée covering the rest of the plate. And it had more than enough sweet, tender crawfish meat and the vegetable trinity.
The sauce was rich and smooth – might even describe it as a little buttery – but it had very little spice. I asked my waitress for hot sauce to liven it up – something I should never have to do in a real Cajun restaurant. She gladly brought it and told me that I should have just told them I wanted it spicy because they can make it to anyone's preference. That didn't do me any good halfway through my meal. Perhaps she should ask customers whether they like it spicy beforehand.
Bourbon Street's diverse mojito offerings were a great way to wash down the spicy food if you get it that way. The strawberry-basil mojito was perfect – sweet and fruity, with just a hint of basil to make you notice. I was disappointed I did not get to try the enticing-sounding cucumber-melon mojito, because the restaurant was out of cucumber, of all things.
There was plenty of alligator and crawfish to be had, but no cucumber.
Speaking of alligator, my favorite appetizer featured some of it. The alligator sausage and shrimp quiche is dubbed a house specialty for good reason. This egg-based appetizer was chock full of the zesty sausage, sweet shrimp bits, red peppers and cheese. It was cheesy, runny and gooey while still being fluffy, and its Romano cheese crust was nicely browed around the outside to give it a textural contrast.
If you don't opt for an extra starter, the salads that come with meals are fantastic, too.
The house salad may seem boring compared with the others – a wedge, Caesar and spinach – but it was by far the best. It had a wonderful mix of greens, a delicious sherry-herb vinaigrette and got even more vinegar punch from pickled red onions. But that vinegar was beautifully offset by sweet golden raisins and spiced pecans.
The soups were not as exciting. The chicken noodle soup du jour was better than the menu-staple gumbo. The chicken had red peppers and fresh herbs that made it interesting, whereas the gumbo – although the chicken and andouille were nice – had an odd acidic flavor and was rather light, lacking the heartiness a dark roux usually gives this Cajun classic.
What was one of my favorite desserts in town also lacked a bit this time. Bourbon Street Hideaway recently started making its sweet potato-pecan pie as mini-tarts instead of serving slices of it from a whole pie. The result was less of the sweet, gooey, nutty filling and too much crumbly crust.
The Chocolate Voodoo Bread Pudding is now a better option. It was so gooey, it was like a lava cake, and the bourbon cream that is poured over it – along with chocolate syrup and whipped cream – is simply sinful.
And there is one more sinful thing about Bourbon Street Hideaway. It is only open three days per week – Thursday through Saturday. For being such an impressive place – both visually and culinarily – I just wish it was open more.
Restaurant: Bourbon Street Hideaway
Address: 135 W. Columbia St.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: No
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Alligator-shrimp quiche ($10.95), soup ($3.95 cup; $5.95 bowl), catfish ($18.95), honey and almond chicken ($18.95), grillades ($15.95), filet mignon ($24.95), desserts ($5.95)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ¦ (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).