It's a highly questionable theory, but Cajun food is often considered to be the less sophisticated rural analogue to cosmopolitan creole cuisine. If you subscribe to that idea, you might have been among the many who did a double take when you learned that the much-anticipated Logan Square cocktail bar Analogue, helmed by two Violet Hour vets, would be serving a tightly focused food menu that includes things like gumbo, po'boys, dirty rice, and biscuits.
Truth is, after Reader staff writer Julia Thiel's feature story and two blog posts about Robert Haynes and Henry Prendergast's cocktails, I suspected we'd spilled quite enough ink on the place. But I didn't count on chef Alfredo Nogueira's Cajun food being so exceptional. Nogueira, late of Rootstock and the seasonal pop-up Flipside Cafe, is a New Orleans native, and the substantial, powerfully rich, and deceptively complex food he's slinging from the tiny kitchen in the back of the bar is born out of formative experience—it's a compelling narrative that was lost in all the preopening hype.
Nogueira goes deep south with little details like a simple basket of saltines served with a smoky, creamy trout dip and thick Louisiana-style hot sauce, or a cool, creamy lump of potato salad (in lieu of rice) bathing in the center of a bowl of luxuriously fatty chicken-and-sausage gumbo.
His biscuits are minipucks of flaky fluffiness, rich with buttermilk tang and served with tubs of cane-syrup compound butter and pepper jelly, somehow at once ethereal and dense with moisture. Or take a side dish of dirty rice, described on the menu as "absolutely filthy," with a bottomless mineral funk of chicken liver and almost hot with dried herbs. These are uncompromising Louisiana culinary icons.
On the other hand, Nogueira successfully takes liberties, as with a mirliton (aka chayote) stuffed with smoked mushrooms and dressed with black-garlic vinaigrette. (As the menu notes, all meat, cheeses, dairy, and fish are sourced locally, so you won't see this dish stuffed with the customary shrimp or crabmeat.) Another likable nod to vegetarians is the mushroom debris po'boy bedded on crispy fries, the umami-rich fungi convincingly subbing for the shredded beef of the classic debris sandwich. There are two po'boys on the menu, in fact—the other bedding a luscious slab of Slagel Farms pork shoulder—both dressed in orthodox fashion with tomato, shredded iceberg lettuce, and mayo, and both built on crackly, light D'Amato's bread, which I never realized was the perfect po'boy vehicle until I had it in this context.
The spicy pork chaurice dog, a creole rejoinder to Big Star's Sonoran hot dog, is cradled in a pillowy lobster roll and topped with beans, chowchow, and hot sauce, while an astonishingly good buttermilk-brined fried chicken breast sandwich, crunchy and bursting with juices, is topped with slaw and slathered in mayo for an effect that, like a lot of these dishes, puts me in mind of the lavish fattiness of the food at Au Cheval.
The kitchen has also made a commitment to cooking as much in-house, from scratch, as possible. Everything from the chowchow to the hot sauce to the pepper jelly is made on-site. Nowhere is this expressed so winningly as in the boucherie plate: thin slabs of headcheese that melt on the tongue, livery deep-fried boudin balls, and smooth chicken-liver mousse, all brightened by tart pickled peppers and more pepper jelly.
There are very few dishes on this menu you should feel comfortable skipping—maybe an overcooked Scotch egg or the watery mashed potatoes or the undercooked slabs of candied yam—and everything is priced so nicely it would be snap to work your way through the menu in a handful of visits. Certainly don't neglect the single dessert, a custardy bread pudding drenched in rum sauce and topped with shards of molar-defying praline.
At the time of my visits I didn't think Analogue was an exceptional place to drink. It doesn't have a very deep spirits list, and its then-current cocktail menu was dominated by local brands, which was noble but didn't offer a lot of variety. The cocktails themselves tended toward the sweet, as in the daquiri-like End of Century, with its hint of coffee essence, or the Strike Anywhere, a manhattan sweetened with cherry syrup in tribute to the version served at the Matchbox (not that that's an acceptable excuse for bartenders to shake rather than stir). Bittered beer cocktails called purls aren't as complex as you might imagine given their esoteric ingredients, but they are light, bracing, and intense, and cut right through the opulent richness of Nogueira's food.
Fortunately, Haynes and Prendergast, who promise to refresh the cocktail menu frequently, have already implemented a new edition. A special Malort cocktail sampled on one visit, the Malori Keaton, may be a sign of better things to come. Sweet and fruity up front and bitter on the finish, it was a lavish bouquet of a drink reminiscent of some of the best things ever poured at the Violet Hour.
The kitchen at Analogue closes at 11 PM, when the tables are cleared to make way for DJs and musicians, adding a third identity to the mix. Bar and boite it may be, but Analogue is also—and most importantly, it turns out—a serious Cajun restaurant. I would love to see Nogueira take this food even further, perhaps in a place where he gets top billing.
Disclosure: on one occasion I ate with a friend of Haynes, and we were comped a few dishes.