You can count on Long Island restaurants to pay attention to Louisiana cooking at least once a year: On Mardi Gras — this year, March 5 — everyone seems to want to let the good times roll. French for “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday was traditionally an occasion for Catholics to get their last helpings of rich food before the privations of Lent.
In the weeks leading up to the big, fat day, gumbo, jambalaya and po’boys pop up at delis, diners and fine-dining establishments. But at eateries that specialize in Creole and Cajun cuisines, it's no holds barred. Regular menu items are supplemented with crawfish boils and étouffées and various alligator parts. Louisiana cocktails and beers flow and, of course, multicolored beads are strewed around.
“Creole” and “Cajun” are often used interchangeably, but they refer to two related, but distinct, cuisines. Creole is the food of New Orleans, a cosmopolitan style that draws on the French, Spanish and Italian heritage of the city’s historical upper classes, as well as from the African slaves who often did the cooking. Cajun has its roots in the rural precincts of Louisiana (bayous, swamps and marshes) that were settled by Canadian refugees (the Acadians) in the 18th century. It’s generally less sophisticated than Creole, having a more limited range of ingredients (no tomatoes, traditionally).
Long Island’s Cajun-Creole scene has been in flux since last Mardi Gras, with the closures of Storyville in Huntington and The Bayou in North Bellmore (after 32 years). Big Daddy’s East, the hotly anticipated Bay Shore satellite of the Massapequa original, opened in August but was shuttered earlier this year.
In the “credit” column, however, is Top Hat French Quarter Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Bellmore, which opened in November.
Here are seven places on Long Island that specialize in the food of New Orleans:
Top Hat Oyster Bar and French Quarter Kitchen
Top Hat Oyster Bar and French Quarter Kitchen (106 Bedford Ave., Bellmore): Long Island’s newest Louisiana-style restaurant is an anomaly: Instead of calling to mind a raucous roadhouse, Top Hat aims for New Orleans sophistication. There are a few beads strung about, but the dining room’s primary decorative elements are three enormous crystal chandeliers, the 150-year-old bar rescued from a Connecticut tavern and a hardwood floor salvaged from the gymnasium at P.S. 31 in the Bronx, built in 1899 and demolished four years ago. Chef-partner Stephen Rosenbluth (who, with his wife, Jennifer, also owns Cardoon in Seaford and Anchor Down in Merrick) did not want to offer a Long Island “take” on New Orleans cooking, so he spent almost two weeks apprenticing at Gabrielle, the classic Treme (a neighborhood of New Orleans) restaurant owned by Greg and Mary Sonnier. Back in Bellmore, he and co-chef Gregory Guidone have crafted a menu heavy on oysters (raw, chargrilled, Rockefeller, Bienville, fried and more) and such traditional dishes as Creole gumbo, crawfish étouffée, jambalaya and blackened redfish. The drinks at Top Hat are no less vaunted than the food. Owner Gerry McClorey also presided over this location’s two earlier incarnations, Crown Steakhouse and Crown Gastropub, and the one thing that hasn’t changed is his collection of nearly 300 whiskeys from around the world. Head bartender Luke Kill has added some craft cocktails of his own devising to a roster of standards such as Sazerac and Hurricane. For Mardi Gras, Top Hat will have Abita Mardi Gras Bock on tap, and the regular menu will be supplemented with a crawfish boil ($25), alligator baby back ribs ($16) and blue crab “fingers” ($14). Note that these are all seasonal items flown up from Louisiana so availability may be limited. More info: 516-900-1560, tophatoysterbar.com
Biscuits & Barbeque
Biscuits & Barbeque (106 E. Second St., Mineola): If you watched the second season of Amazon Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” you saw Biscuits & Barbeque impersonating a Pennsylvania diner during episode 8. (Midge and Susie ate a contentious breakfast there.) The restaurant, housed in a vintage diner, has a side business as a film location, but it’s day (and night) job is serving smoked meats, Southern and Cajun cuisine. In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, the eatery will beef up the regular menu with crawfish boil ($23.94 for a pound, $44.95 for 3 pounds), crawfish étouffée ($26.95) and shrimp Creole ($25.95). Cash only. More info: 516-493-9797, biscuitsandbarbeque.com
Mara’s Southern Kitchen
Mara’s Southern Kitchen (236 W. Jericho Tpke., Syosset): Formerly Mara’s Homemade, the Syosset restaurant recently changed its name to Mara’s Southern Kitchen. “ ‘Homemade’ confused people,” said owner Mara Levi. “People didn’t know if we were a restaurant or a craft store.” The menu remains pan-Southern, with Nashville chicken, Charleston-style shrimp and grits and Arkansas-style barbecue, but she and her partner (and son), chef Josh Levi, have no less of a commitment to the cuisine of Louisiana. Some of their less common items include cheesy crawfish-stuffed French bread, gator bites and gator sausage. The Mardi Gras celebration at Mara’s starts Sunday, March 3 with $5 Hurricanes (rum, lemon juice, and passion fruit syrup) and $7 Monsoons (rum, pineapple juice, passion fruit juice, sweet-and-sour mix). On Sunday and Monday, the extensive regular menu will be served, but on Tuesday, Mara’s will pare down the offerings to about 30 Cajun specialties, including crawfish boil ($17 a pound), deviled oysters ($15 for four), and seafood or chicken-andouille gumbo ($12). More info: 516-682-9200, marasouthernkitchen.com
Big Daddy's (1 Park Lane, Massapequa): Massapequa’s expansive roadhouse has been rollicking since 1993, endearing itself to diners with such twists on tradition as shrimp and habanero-goat-cheese grits and Vieux Carre pork and waffles, smoked, pulled pork and bacon on a waffle that is subsequently smothered in Cheddar and bourbon-maple syrup. Mardi Gras specials start this week, with crawfish boils and $5 two-for-one oyster shooters offered every day until March 5 (except March 3) and live music every night. On Mardi Gras, there will be no menu, just a New Orleans-style buffet featuring jambalaya, muffulettas, po’boys, catfish, gumbo and much more. Live music starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 and there may not be room for people who haven’t bought them in advance. More info: 516-799-8877, bigdaddysny.com
Louisiana Joe's (488 Merrick Rd., Oceanside): Since 2015, this modest-looking breakfast-lunch spot has been serving up some of Long Island’s most accomplished Cajun and Creole dishes. The eponymous Joe is chef Joe LoSchiavo, a passionate fan of New Orleans cuisine who was formerly executive chef at B.K. Sweeney’s Uptown Grille and George Martin in Rockville Centre. You can start your day with a gumbo omelet with andouille sausage, lunch on muffuletta (the famous antipasto sandwich), gumbo and jambalaya, po’boys stuffed with shrimp, oysters, roast beef, chicken, turkey and even French fries. For Mardi Gras week (Monday to Saturday), Louisiana Joe’s is saluting andouille (“the king of pork sausages,” LoSchiavo said), with two sandwiches: morning jazz ($6.99) features andouille, scrambled eggs, cream cheese, peppery jelly and arugula on a toasted roll; all-nighter ($11.99) ups the porcine ante with andouille, braised pork and house-cured bacon on a hero roll. There’s also andouille over red beans and rice with melted Cheddar jack cheese. More info: 516-442-9838, louisianajoes.com
R.S. Jones (153 Merrick Ave., Merrick): Established in 1993, Margaret Mueller and Carole Olkoski’s Southern-Cajun-cowboy-themed eatery is little more than a box, the front of which houses a bar, the back of which, a dining room. But over the years, the walls and ceiling have seen a steady accretion of photos, license plates, cowboy boots, signs, instruments and other knickknacks so that the place now seems more Southern roadhouse than South Shore restaurant. The Mardi Gras festivities start at 5 p.m. on Tuesday with free face painting, T-shirt giveaways and thousands of beads. A Mardi Gras king will be crowned at 8:30 p.m. Regular menu items plus blackboard specials and king cake for dessert. Reservations recommended. More info: 516-378-7177, rsjones.com
Blackbird's Grille (553 Old Montauk Hwy., Sayville): If you squint at Blackbird’s Grille’s roadhouse-style building, set back from the road and situated between Islip Grange Park and Sayville’s string of Sans Souci lakes, you could almost pretend you’re on the bayou. According to owner Ed Black, the restaurant “inherited” its Cajun and Creole specialties. When Black, his brother Wayne and family friend Wes Little bought Sayville’s Sweet Magnolia in 2005, they changed the name, but customers wouldn’t countenance the loss of jambalaya, crawfish, gumbo or po’boys. The restaurant will celebrate Mardi Gras from Friday through Tuesday, with a special menu that includes alligator sausage bao (Chinese-style buns, $9), Cajun shrimp and grits ($12), crawfish étouffée ($10), cornmeal-fried catfish ($19) and blackened Delmonico steak ($24). More info: 631-563-4144, blackbirdsgrille.com