Gumbo variations

When Celestin’s opened in Sacramento on J Street almost a decade ago, it was a welcome addition to the Midtown scene, offering a Caribbean-influenced cuisine that was new and different. The restaurant has only improved with age, and made its move into new, more spacious digs on K Street this past December with style and grace.

We walked into a packed house on a recent Saturday evening and were almost knocked backward by a noise level best described as deafening. The owners have partitioned what could have been a cavern with two walls running the length of the space, punctuated with windows decorated with wood fretwork. The Voodou Lounge occupies one of those spaces and the bar is set off from the dining area with a rich red paint job. The restaurant is jazzed up with bright Caribbean hues of sunny yellow, rose and turquoise and Caribbean artwork.

Despite the crowds, the service we received was topnotch, some of the best I’ve had anywhere, even with a mid-dinner shuffling of the wait staff. Our food and drinks came promptly, our waiter volunteered child-friendly items, and the manager answered our questions personally. We were treated so well I began to suspect I had been made out as a restaurant reviewer. Maybe it was scribbling in my notebook that gave me away.

And the food? It was, almost without exception, excellent. We opted for a platter of appetizers called Fritailles (literally, little fried things, $8), since it included a sampling of almost every item on the appetizer menu: both regular fries and sweet potato fries, lamb fritters, grio (marinated braised pork), and tostones (fried plantain chips), served with a ti-malice sauce heavy on the lime juice and hot pepper.

Both types of fries disappeared in a jiffy, as did the unbelievably tender pork. The lamb fritters were equally good, especially dipped in the ti-malice sauce. The tostones, however, were strangely tasteless and had the texture of cardboard.

I thought the appetizer platter could have been a little more generous until I saw the main course. The portions were huge, with enough gumbo and rice in each bowl to feed three normal people. My husband had the nightly special, an all-seafood gumbo, while I ordered the house gumbo, which included shrimp, scallops, andouille sausage, red snapper and chicken ($16). Gumbo is definitely the thing to order at Celestin’s, and the possible variations take up a full third of the menu. Though if you’re feeling contrary, Celestin’s offerings include grilled snapper, chicken curry and a creole dish with your choice of chicken, shrimp or mixed seafood, as well as several meat dishes.

The gumbo itself was a dark and rich broth with its roux flirting on the right side of slightly burnt, enriched with sassafras root, onion, celery and green pepper, dotted with a generous helping of meat and seafood over a bed of white rice. The various meats were all perfectly cooked, each piece of shrimp and seafood keeping its personality intact. The only quibble I had with the dish was a few stray fish bones.

Celestin’s offers only three desserts—key lime pie, coconut pie and a chocolate decadence from Freeport Bakery. We ordered the chewy, eggy coconut pie and ended up in a tense tussle over the last few bites.

The Voodou Lounge offers a full selection of beer, wine and Caribbean-toned cocktails. I hesitated over a Cuba Libre (basically a rum and Coke) but instead had a Mojito, a concoction of rum, lime juice, mint and soda water. The secret ingredient is simple syrup, a sugar-water syrup that is muddled, or smashed, with the mint leaves to good effect.

The Voodou Lounge keeps going after the restaurant closes down, with DJ music Thursday through Saturday nights, a bossa-nova duo on Tuesdays and Brazilian jazz on Wednesdays. The lounge also has a happy hour Tuesdays through Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m.

It’s been a long time since I roared down a Caribbean beach road in an overloaded pickup truck while the driver slugged down a bottle of rum and the kids hanging off the roof played a fast merengue on their guitars. But at Celestin’s, I can get pretty close—and it costs a lot less than a plane ticket to Santo Domingo or Haiti.