Chappy's Creole fare adds Big Easy flavor to Downtown St. Pete

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click to enlarge CREOLE EGG ROLL: Chappy's crawfish egg rolls exhibit a playful take on New Orleans fare. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
CREOLE EGG ROLL: Chappy's crawfish egg rolls exhibit a playful take on New Orleans fare.

Craig Chapman, the man behind Chappy's, is a multifaceted fellow. He's a former corporate chef for chains like Hops and Bonefish Grill who's made the move into more independent dining, albeit with a mini-chain mentality. Chapman and a cadre of investors have planned three restaurants for downtown St. Pete, all with different culinary themes. Chappy's is the second.

The first entrant in the Chappy empire was Grillside Central, which opened early this year to pretty much universal acclaim. It'd be difficult not to love the casual, down-home Southern cuisine at Grillside, especially considering the reasonable pricing and hours that encompass three square meals and a late-night component. One down.

Chappy's Louisiana Kitchen, which opened a couple of months ago in the old Redwoods space in downtown St. Pete, is both more and less than Chapman's successful Grillside. More, because it veers into the largely upscale cuisine of French-influenced Creole cooking. Less, because it's just not as well executed as its cheaper brother down the street.

The restaurant is also of two minds about its look. Up front are chunky wooden high-tops and a row of booths. In back is a bright dining room loaded with white-clothed tables. I suggest you sit in the front area — the not-quite-upscale food fits better there — or go out the side door and try the breezeway used by both Chappy's and neighboring Central Café. The bricked alley has the right Big Easy feel.

Like Grillside, there's nothing new or unusual on Chappy's menu, even considering that Creole hasn't gotten much love in the area over the past few years. Still, Chapman has some playfulness in him, like when he stuffs tender crawfish meat into loosely wrapped, deep-fried egg rolls that would be better without the surfeit of grease clinging to the rice paper and puddling on the plate.

Maybe he should play more. Typical oysters Bienville is competent enough, the usual blend of béchamel, melted cheese and slinky bivalve; Chappy's gumbo, on the other hand, is a tragedy. It comes out more solid than soup, thick enough to support a spoon, gelatinous in the mouth. That texture detracts from the bounty of sausage and chicken in the bowl, and the bland roux at its base adds little of those dark, nutty notes that are at the core of a successful version of this Louisiana classic.

Similar execution problems affect the entrees, almost across the board. A thick "porterhouse" pork chop looks pretty enough, but is so overcooked that the texture is like chewy, grainy pressboard. Trout is coated in a tepid crust of crushed pecan and doused in sticky-sweet honey sauce that tastes like caramel. At least the filet is cooked right, pink through and through and doused in a marchand de vin sauce accented by Worcestershire and mushrooms.

Those kinds of sauces are at the heart of every item on the menu, the result of culinary meddling by French settlers in Louisiana. At their best, they add a realm of flavor that enlivens Creole cuisine. Here at Chappy's, however, they are often overshadowed by poor technique or, in the case of the trout, actually detract from the main ingredient.

Lunch is a better option, with staples like shrimp ladled on grits formed into crispy cakes, a slew of salads and the classic po' boy. This type of casual fare is where Chapman shines up the street, so it makes sense that it would be the best bet here as well.

Still, though, I'm worried. St. Pete Times food critic Laura Reiley recently called the restaurant scene in downtown St. Pete a "bloodbath," thanks to the sudden demise of The Table (our Readers' Poll choice for Best New Restaurant), The Kitchen's change to a non-restaurant co-op and the second closing of DeSanto. No matter who makes it into the White House next, the economy isn't going to get better any time soon. The bloodbath could very well continue, and marginal restaurants like Chappy's are going to get hit the hardest.

It's tough. I love Grillside, any time of day. When that restaurant raised prices a tad a few months ago, I just shrugged. Still cheap, comparatively. Still good. My Grillside experience made me want to dive onto the Chapman bandwagon. It also, despite the lackluster Chappy's, makes me eager to see what he can do with upscale soul food, his proposed third restaurant expected to open on Beach Drive around the beginning of next year.

Maybe the lesson is to take it one restaurant at a time. If this were a Ray's three-game series, and the starting pitching gave up the second outing, I'd be happy to give those plucky Cinderellas the benefit of the doubt until the final game. For Chapman, his chance to maintain a winning record will have to come on his third try.

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