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Cajun spot popular with Saints fans

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A warm, two-bite, Cajun-styled fried boudin ball is a prerequisite for a place devoted to New Orleans Saints fans. The ones served at Creole's Louisiana Kitchen are shipped in from Louisiana along with the spunky Andouille sausage.

Creole's, which opened last July, has the trappings of an extreme kings cake: purple, green and gold walls; bright lights; and lots of kitsch. From one wall, a half manikin leans over a railing ready to toss Mardi Gras beads on the diners below. Another dining room has a gator theme. The television tuned to LSU or Saints games is the primary feature of the large bar.

Creole's is the first restaurant of owner Hamilton Stolpen, who sold his share of PJ O'Reilly, an Irish-styled bar in south Charlotte. He saw the need for a Cajun place in Ballantyne, noting that some restaurants devoted to Cajun and Creole food in Charlotte often confuse their menus by adding Low Country items. While Stolpen insists Creole's is a restaurant first, bar second, I noticed on several occasions that the LSU-appareled patrons watching their team set the tone for the space.

Creole's menu is packed with the classics: gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp, and oysters. The T-shirt clad kitchen crew uses Stolpen's recipes, which he also taught them to make. Herein is a problem. One of the essential components of many cuisines including French and Cajun/Creole is roux. It is this caramelized mixture of oil and flour that's the base note for many sauces such as béchamel and for dishes like étouffée and gumbo. Depending on the oil used, some roux are lighter than others. The darker the roux, the smokier the taste of the base. The darkest roux are the most difficult to make: The chef must know precisely when to stop the heat or the mixture will burn. This takes skill and practice.

However, the roux of the étouffée here is a pale café au lait color without a richness of flavor. Without that note, this entrée, although loaded with crawfish, is not successful. Similarly, the shrimp creole is another misstep with only a handful of shrimp, a bland tomato sauce, and rice, lots of rice.

What is better at Creole's are sandwiches like the fried oyster po-boy, the gumbo, and the fried okra and red beans and rice sides. The warmed muffaletta, though, needs a thicker layer of olive spread and mortadella. Ten years ago, a 20-year ban on imported Italian mortadella was lifted, so I suppose an entire generation grew up without that distinct taste. But there's no substitution.

Desserts tend to get swept away in a tide of bulk and richness. The white chocolate bread pudding, though, is preferred to the bourban (sic) pecan pie which did not set up.

If you looked at this place like a sports bar (the LSU and Saints schedules are posted on Creole's website), the draw would be the delightful boudin balls (only offered weekends), good po-boys, and a fun atmosphere. As a restaurant, though, you'll find a too-chatty service team who can be seen frequently drinking out of the required covered containers, and entrée dishes yearning to be more than a still life.

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