The first thing you notice about Vieux Port Creole (Old Port, get it?) is that it smells very good. This new, lunch-only spot opened in February, just in time for Mardi Gras, in the Congress Street storefront of the longtime catering company A Moveable Feast. The space is bright and airy, and when I arrived for lunch on a recent Thursday, had plenty of open tables.
I ordered a glass of homemade lemonade ($2) and settled in to study the menu, which is, unsurprisingly, filled with classic New Orleans dishes, including seafood gumbo and crawfish bisque. I was tempted by the crab salad (lump blue crab over mixed greens, with a green peppercorn dressing) but felt obligated to try something more representative. The red beans and rice ($9.50) sounded alluring, but could I really go back to my editor and say I’d skipped the jambalaya? Or the étouffée? Can one really report on a Cajun restaurant without trying those staples?
Lucky for me, the menu offers a tasting option, all three for $12.
I expected they’d perhaps arrive on a big platter, running together over a mound of rice, but instead when the dish arrived (not exactly swiftly; I’d just checked my watch and 14 minutes had elapsed) each dish was presented in its own little bowl, with a big lump of white, buttered bread on the side. I went fork-to-fork between all three. The jambalaya was definitely too salty on first bite, but as I kept pulling pieces of chicken and andouille from the thick, brown gravy, I realized it was addictive.
The étouffée was filled with firm, sweet crawfish and chunks of celery with a little red pepper thrown in. Being a woman utterly spoiled by being raised on lobster, I wasn’t wowed by the crawfish. Or the stewy sauce. I wondered what a true expert on Cajun cooking would think and was tempted to ask the guy behind me, who had ordered a cup of chickory, a sure sign he knew what he was doing, but he hadn’t eaten yet. I turned next to the bowl of red beans and rice, which also contained andouille. This was the cleanest, brightest tasting of the dishes. In my lunch dream world, I’d have that on a plate with a side of some lightly dressed green salad with crunch from something like romaine.
The bread was one of those soft, squishy slices — the bland, doughy stuff that I would have scarfed up as a kid but that is very hard to eat in 2017 when your weekly trip to the farmers market involves choosing between the wood-fired oven miche and the rustique. Again, spoiled. I bet this bread is great for soaking up gravy, but I had a lot to do in the afternoon. The bread would tip me into a food coma.
My server, who I believe is the owner of both this restaurant and A Moveable Feast (which is still very much in business), was just the right kind of friendly, offering more lemonade (free refills) and directing me to the array of hot sauce bottles at the front of the restaurant, just in case I wanted to spice anything up. (Beyonce-like, I did, although I did not stash the bottle in my purse afterward.) She told me she and the chef were still working out the kinks of starting a new restaurant. From what I saw, they don’t have much more to do.
WHERE: 431 Congress St., Portland, 761-9330, amfcatering.com
WHEN: Lunch only, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday
WAIT: About 15 minutes
PARKING: It’s Portland, so street parking is its usual drag. Pay lot in nearby Monument Square.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes