Flavor: New Orleans, with subtle outside influences
Ambiance: In the Grey Eagle Tavern, a casual, nonsmoking pub and concert hall
Service: Highly entertaining
The crawfish with the biggest claws may make good eating, but they can’t race worth a damn.
I learned that firsthand at the Twin Cousins Kitchen at the Grey Eagle Tavern, where the Picky Companion and I celebrated the first really warm days of May with some yellow beer (French Broad’s Goldenrod Pilsner, to be exact) and a true New Orleans pastime: sucking the brains out of mudbugs.
The Kitchen, which has been open just a few months, decided to throw a South Louisiana crawfish boil to introduce Ashevilleans to Big Easy traditions – and perhaps to help the Twin Cousins, Frank Douglass and Arthur Douglass (yep, they’re actually cousins), alleviate a little homesickness.
Both men hail from Louisiana, and their cuisine, as they describe it, is like a slice of New Orleans itself: “a mixture of Creole, Cajun, soul, Italian and Native American, with a pinch of Asheville homegrown from time to time.” The hodgepodge of flavors can be attributed to Arthur’s training: He learned to cook from his New Orleans mother and his Italian-born grandmother, honed his techniques at culinary school, and later worked at Paul Prudhomme’s famed Old New Orleans Cookery, other esteemed restaurants and even the steamboat Mississippi Queen.
Arthur says that despite all that background, he found that the “place to learn what the customer likes is in the field,” namely, New Orleans-area “neighborhood” festivals, such as the LaPlace Gumbo Fest and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. “Sometimes I think we have cooked at every festival in South Louisiana over the last three decades,” adds Frank, who refers to himself as “the better looking twin.”
On our way into the restaurant, we sampled the gumbo, which was delicious. The rich, smoky flavor, Frank told me, was imparted by the andouille sausage made by Jacob’s, a fourth-generation family-owned business that smokes their handmade sausages over pecan wood in centuries-old smokehouses. The houses are so old, he said, the insides look like carved onyx. Arthur tipped forward the container of dark roux he used for thickening and flavoring the gumbo so we could see its caramelized murkiness.
Lured by the spicy scent of shellfish bubbling on the patio, we took our seats at one of the picnic tables outside. In short order, heaping baskets of steaming crawfish were placed before us, along with sweet potatoes, whole new potatoes, heads of garlic and spicy-as-hell corncobs, all of which had been bathed in the aromatic boil.
We joined in the cacophony of tearing, cracking and slurping that pervaded the patio. We nibbled on corn, pinched tails, and engaged in the macabre-sounding practice of sucking brains, thanking God for the creation of yellow beer to sooth the burn of sinus-searing authenticity. The meat was savory and tender, the juices spiked with whole coriander, allspice and other seasonings. The sweet potatoes were out of this world, and the corn was burn-yer-face enough to make my eyes water.
“How could something this spicy and visceral not be good?” asked Picky as he snapped another claw in half, squirting hot juice into his eye.
Next, we ordered up a side of corn macqué choux, a Native American and Cajun side dish the Twin Cousins make with fresh-cut corn, jalapeños and trinity (onions, bell peppers and celery – the three most-often used ingredients in Cajun/Creole cooking). The dish was spicy, simple and tasty.
We sampled the fried green tomatoes, and agreed they were the best we’d ever tasted. Arthur said that the secret is in the double-battering process, using plenty of egg, flour and Italian bread crumbs. The dish was so tangy and full of flavor, no sauce was needed.
The crawfish pie, a puffed pastry filled with tail meat in a mildly spicy, light béchamel-type sauce, was hearty and good (it’s a favorite of Grey Eagle Tavern staff, I was told).
Picky particularly liked the stuffed shrimp, which was enrobed in a savory shellfish I assumed to be crab, then battered and fried. I found them to be good, but a bit burnt on the outside and undercooked on the inside, which was probably a result of cranking up the deep fryer a bit too high.
We also sampled a few vegetarian options, and found them to be just fine, though it was hard to pay much attention to rice and beans with so much pork and shellfish about. The Twin Cousins, one of the cooks told me, can substitute tofu for meat in just about any of their dishes, something that came as a surprise to one local vegetarian I spoke to who was under the impression that she could find little to eat at the restaurant.
We managed to squeeze in one more dish, the Alligator Sauce Piquant – gator meat in a lightly spicy red sauce over rice with vegetables and herbs. We likened it to a cross between chili and shrimp creole (without the shrimp).
Full to the brim, we retired to a patio bench with a sturdy back, lest the forces of gravity, beer and heavy bellies take over. I watched Frank pull a protective shade off of a Priority Mail box from Louisiana with air holes poked in the top. It was time to reload the boil.
“You want to see a grown man cry?” he asked with an impish grin.
Whitey, the Twin Cousins’ “Cajun Connection” and official boil master, stuck a hand in the box and withdrew it with several mudbugs dangling , their claws clamped to his digits. I waddled over to check out the squirming crawdads, and was immediately invited to select a candidate for the (as far as I could tell, impromptu) Official Asheville Crawfish Racing Derby. I selected a fierce-looking little bugger who was angrily waving his giant claws and placed him on the track. (Crawfish, by the way, can live up to seven months out of water, as long as their gills are kept wet.)
Apparently, when it comes to racing, large claws are a liability. My little racer dragged his enormous pinchers for about a half a foot, then sat still. We stared at each other for a bit, and I felt a pang of guilt – until he made an ambitious attempt at my face with his unwieldy claws, and back to the box he went.
After my brief stint as a crawfish jockey, I decided I much preferred leaning back and watching the festivities. The Louisiana contingent was hosing down crawfish, telling jokes and nursing beers, and everyone on the patio seemed to be enjoying themselves. “I could do this every day,” Picky said wistfully. I sipped my beer and thought about how someone like Jimmy Buffett might compose a goofy song about the scene, something about pints of Pilsner and racin’ crustaceans.
And I decided: At my next crawfish derby, I’ll look for dainty claws.