It was a crisp, December evening and we'd decided to reminisce about our last trip to New Orleans exactly one year ago. Dee Felice Cafe, a New Orleans-themed restaurant in Covington, Kentucky, seemed the perfect venue from which to do so.
We have a special affection for New Orleans. The place exudes a soul and ambiance one can't fully appreciate merely through words. Like many Southern coastal port cities, New Orleans boasts a rich history with structures nearly as old as the United States itself, and cultural influences dating back much, much further. As long as you steer clear of hyper-touristy Bourbon Street, chances are you'll come away with an experience of a lifetime. And if you don't steer clear, you'll likely still have a good time, but you won't remember much of it.
A cornerstone of New Orleans' charm is its unique, delicious food. The city's amazing signature dishes hearken back to early Americana: a slow-cooked, simmering melting pot of French, Creole, Cajun, African, Spanish, Native American and Italian cuisine.
Dee Felice Cafe has been serving food and recreating the New Orleans vibe for nearly three decades. It's renowned for offering fine, authentic Cajun and Creole dishes amid a dark, smoky din of live Jazz, with musicians belting out tunes atop a narrow, elevated platform behind the bar.
We were seated near the restaurant's front window overlooking Chez Nora across the street. A basket of fresh-baked bread soon arrived at our table, small yeasty rolls that Dee Felice advertises as being baked on site. They were good, airy, but lacked the sharp, yeasty flavor I was hoping for.
We started off with the "Hot Slaw" and a "Special Salad" of the day. The salad consisted of roasted, "blackened" tomatoes lightly topped with crumbled blue cheese and raspberry vinaigrette, served over a thin bed of Romaine leaves. The Hot slaw, made up of shredded cabbage, crumbled bacon, onion and bell pepper, was partially submerged in a pool of warmed vinegar, which hijacked the flavor. It was overpowering enough to make me cough a few times, but I pressed on. I appreciated the more complex flavors of my girlfriend's roasted tomato salad, but she also found her dressing too overpowering.
We ordered two popular Louisiana favorites for our entrees: Jambalaya and Crawfish Etouffee. We chose half portions priced around $12 apiece. Full portions cost twice as much and included one side and a salad.
My girlfriend was notably surprised after taking her first bite. Overwhelmed by the supreme over-pepperiness of her Jambalaya, her first thought was, "I'm not sure I can take another bite of this." Shrimp had been cooked beyond her recognition; she hadn't realized the rubbery, ragged-textured objects were seafood until I'd pointed them out. Mealy bits of sausage and hard-to-cut chunks of overcooked chicken also graced her steaming dish. My Crawfish Etouffee was also very peppery, uncharacteristically soupy and very light on the rice. The crawfish were small but not as overcooked as her shrimp.
The waitress arrived later with a dessert tray, which included pumpkin pie, a berry cobbler, bread pudding, cannoli and the Boule de Neige, a whipped cream-covered cake with a dark chocolate center. We opted for the bread pudding and the cannoli.
The bread pudding was lukewarm and astonishingly bland: despite its dessert status, it reminded me more of a failed Thanksgiving stuffing, the kind Grandma would overcook and turn into a fine, tasteless mush. It had a slightly fruity aftertaste, no doubt assisted by the overabundance of bloated, golden raisins. The glue-like, so-called "Bourbon" sauce lacked any punch --typically one would enjoy a spiked whiskey flavor, but this sauce seemed like it had been made during Prohibition.
The cannoli was small and largely tasteless, save for a hint of orange. The overly broad choice of desserts was confounding. Dee Felice would be better off perfecting a small number of selections. For example, why not offer Bananas Foster, the famous New Orleans dessert invented at Brennan's restaurant? With Chiquita's headquarters right across the river, it seems like a no-brainer.
Service was a highlight of the evening: water glasses were promptly refilled and our waitress was attentive and helpful. Alas, the food was beyond saving.
Dee Felice Cafe is one place we'll likely never step foot in again. The music might transport you to New Orleans, but the jarringly mediocre food will slap you back to reality. It's disappointing, given Dee Felice's reputation. We'd last visited 10 years ago and had a much better experience. How times change.
If you want more authentic New Orleans fare, try Anna Ree's Andouille, located in New Richmond, Ohio. It's worth the trip.