Roots music isn't about technique it's about soul. Almost anyone can be trained in variations on the five simple notes of the blues scale, but it takes a virtuoso to sit comfortably on the root and work it into a groove.
Nathanial "Nate" Sams obviously gets the groove. This Louisiana transplant isn't seeking to dazzle the downtown clientele with avant-garde dining at his recently opened Louisiana Flair; he's courting them with consistently delicious renditions of breakfast and lunch.
When Sams moved into the kitchen at the low-key corner of Grace and Fourth streets, he brought with him a few good recipes and the passion to duplicate them countless times with equal enthusiasm.
Take the catfish. Sams knows how to make this low-country delicacy sing. The well-seasoned fillets are crispy golden brown on the outside, flaky and flavorful on the inside a commercial cliché is, after all, based on an occasionally reached ideal. Sams confidently works this catfish riff, pairing it with eggs and grits at breakfast, and offering it again at lunch as a mouth-watering po' boy featuring sautéed mushrooms, onions and peppers.
The menu doesn't stray too far from eggs at breakfast and sandwiches at lunch. What this means, however, is a set list of standards that consistently hit the high notes. One might ask, "How hard is it to make a ham-and-cheese omelet?" but just think about how many bad ones you've been served. Sams plays his ingredients with the finesse of someone who loves to eat as much as he loves to cook. The ham is piled on high, the cheese melds everything together, and the thin egg casing is perfectly golden.
Notice a theme developing here? The beauty comes from knowing exactly when to remove the entrée from the heat, and Sams' light touch on the grill results in everything attaining the same golden hue. From the home fries to the fried oysters on the eponymous po' boy to the tops of the homemade biscuits to the crust atop the bread pudding with whiskey sauce, the timing is perfect.
The menu's simplicity also means that Sams can execute all these licks in the kitchen with ease, which is essential because he's a one-man band. With a little backup from his wife, Vicki, and an extra server when the joint really gets jumping, Sams manages the prep, line cooking and checkout with comfort.
This may become the biggest problem at Louisiana Flair, though. Can Sams keep dancing faster as the music rises to a crescendo? He's already expanded lunch hours into the dinner rush from 4 to 6. It's maybe more than he wanted to engage in, but with success come requests for an encore.
When you do stop in (and really you must the mix of music and food and friendly ownership makes this a feel-good joint on many levels), be sure to try the gumbo, a beautiful medley of seafood. Look for specials such as crab Thibodaux with an Asiago cheese sauce over pasta, served with garlic toast and broccoli, as well as improvised wonders bound to pop into the repertoire. I'm thinking jambalaya can't be too far away.
Of course, roots music isn't for everyone. It takes an appreciation of the profound simplicity of the rhythm and a willingness to let go and groove. Likewise, Louisiana Flair probably won't and isn't trying to please everyone. With its low-brow plastic Mardi Gras decorations and cafeteria-style tables and chairs, this is not the place to take out-of-town guests if you're looking to show off. But the constant stream of good vibrations resonating from speakers above the kitchen provides all the atmosphere required.
And you have to give Sams kudos for authenticity. Anyone who's strolled down Bourbon Street will tell you, "It ain't about pretty it's about feeling good." S
Louisiana Flair ($)
332 E. Grace St.
Lunch/dinner: Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.