WITH THE HEAT index more than 100 this week, it seemed like an ideal time to try out Les Bons Temps, the 6-week-old Center City version of Carmine's Creole Café on the Main Line. In the new location executive chef and owner John Mims and his business partner, Howard Taylor, are branching out with a contemporary interpretation of Mim's native New Orleans cuisine.
The old H. Battles building lends itself to a rich southern decor. The sweeping staircase, which surely must be Mount Kilimanjaro to the waitstaff by mid-shift, provides a decadent and indulgent grandeur.
And while nothing can ever come close to experiencing New Orleans below sea level with its intangible essence permeating every breath, sound and taste, a properly-made gumbo is the next best thing to being there.
Often called the most important dish in all Louisiana cookery, Mims changes his gumbo on a whim - but never with okra. Comments on this exclusion are decidedly the purview of native New Orleanians and a point of view no Northerner should entertain.
Mim starts his gumbo of the day ($7) with a dark roux that gives the dish rich, smooth undertones. I had the version with duck confit and andouille sausage. A perfect white splash of steamed rice set the flavors off.
One of Mim's contemporary twists is the Eggplant Beignet appetizer ($8). A combo of fried eggplant and the signature doughnut of New Orleans. With a dusting of powdered sugar and a hit of Tabasco hot sauce, these are a fun concept with great execution.
Another winning twist was the Duck Jambalaya Croquettes with Creole Sauce and Tasso Ham ($9). Once again, perfect frying created a crunchy crust that yielded to a soft interior.
My favorite appetizer was the "Casian" style tuna tartare ($12). Initially there seemed too much soy sauce in the sauce, but when combined with the accompanying lacy black sesame seed tuille cookie, the sweetness balanced the saltiness of the soy.
An example of the contemporary Creole was the Coffee Chili rubbed pork tenderloin ($22), served over an interesting bed of onion confit, crawfish, andouille and potato.
Even with the hot, steamy New Orleans theme, the Twelve Hour Red-Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs with Mashed Sweet Potatoes ($24) was delicious, if not a tad heavy. I don't doubt the falling-apart short ribs were cooked half a day, but this is a dish for a chillier day. Much chillier.
The one disappointing dish was the Butter Braised Chicken ($22). The bird, while tender, was somewhat bland and the Brabant Potatoes lacked the kind of crisp caramelization that I expect from this cubic version of fries.
The Cajun Style Jambalaya ($25) included andouille, duck confit, crawfish, shrimp and rice in a creole sauce. I would have been happier with a much smaller portion of the jambalaya as it is, by its nature, an over-the-top dish.
Desserts probably should be an afterthought with the richness of the menu, but the praline cookies stacked with a whipped cream mousse and a touch of raspberries was worth tempting fate.
The service shows signs of a new staff with a few flubs and missteps. I expect that will wear away, but for heaven's sake, who in their right mind would package three separate leftover dishes in a single container even if you mistakenly thought they were for one person?
Of my visits, the one I most enjoyed was at the bar. Small plate offerings include the appetizers as well as a couple of Po Boy sliders ($8 for pork or sausage and $9 for fried oysters). These were far more satisfying than the two-bite mini burgers found at most places these days.
There's a nice list of classic cocktails and, beer lovers, take note of the New Orleans brews. A sturdy Hurricane will make you feel like a giddy tourist, and there's an admirable mint julep. Drink specials change, so ask your server what's the best deal.
I was dismayed that one of my favorite New Orleans concoctions, Ramos Gin Fizz, wasn't on the menu. But, just like a little New Orleans magic, I wandered a block over and discovered Apothecary (102 S. 13th) where all the bartenders are mixology geeks.
If a Ramos Gin Fizz is what I wanted, that's what I would get. And although there weren't 35 bartenders in attendance as Ramos legend has it, the three on duty passed my cocktail shaker around for a good four minutes to create the frothy concoction of my desire. So, let the good times roll. *