These days, food sophisticates who can recite all the ingredients of Naked Bathing Rama and tell you precisely how they like their injera bread may grow uncomfortably silent on the subject of, say, Creole food. American regional cuisines, not nearly as widely represented as the world cuisines imported by immigrants, have ironically become America's exotic cutting edge. Hilbo's Alligator Soul 7104 Woodlawn, 985-2303
dinner Tue-Sun, brunch Sun
D, MC, V; wine and beer Consider Hilbo's Alligator Soul, a boxy storefront in Seattle's wildly exotic Green Lake district. Owner Hilary Craig, a Floridian who opened a casual Cajun joint in Everett three years ago purveying fried catfish and hushpuppies, wanted a more substantial showcase for his native dishes. He found a Seattle address, hired sous chef Monty Richardson, hung out the world's most unpromising sign, and opened Hilbo's in May. And out of this inauspicious kitchen began to issue utterly fascinating food. Like Hilbo's crab-claw gumbo ($16.95), an impossibly potent brew built on a wine-dark chocolate roux and heady shellfish stock. Peppers, garlic, onions, and tomatoes merge with clams, oysters, scallops, and assorted other sea creatures, including half of a grainy Florida stone crab; copious aromatics are introduced to bubble and simmer. It all goes into a massive trough over rice and is brought to the table hot in every sense. I find it hard to describe this powerfully flavored dish, in which all the spices sang wonderful loud harmonies and all the fish was cooked just right. The word "overwhelming" comes to mind, but that's a word I'll be wanting to overuse in the paragraphs to follow. Indeed, our appetizer on gumbo night was a special called mushroom vol-au-vent ($7.50), in which portobellos, shiitakes, and enokis were served in a rich veal-port reduction on puff pastry. Earthy mushroom essence infused the whole dish, flavoring the demiglace to an extraordinary intensity. Similarly, a daily-special entrée, poussin over dirty rice ($12.95), featured the diminutive deep-fried bird over the most densely flavorful mess of rice I have ever sampled. Cooked in duck stock, deepened with sausage and chicken livers, and enlivened with onions, garlic, and peppers, this dirty rice was more than just "dirty." Nibbled in concert with the flavorful chicken and its deep, deep port sauce, the rice was, well . . . overwhelming. And, truth be told, not entirely to my liking. As I considered why—when my companion was eagerly polishing it off—I rejected descriptors like "gamey" and "earthy" for the more humbling possibility that perhaps it was simply authentic. I've had dirty rice before; it just never tasted quite so surehandedly ripe and rangy. I began to suspect that perhaps Hilbo's speaks in a dialect I simply don't understand. If that's true, I'm not the only one: although our waiter insisted that crowds have been known to slam the place, both for dinner and for Sunday brunch, we were all alone on all our visits. Maybe others haven't developed a palate for this exotic cuisine either. Maybe they don't want to pay so much to acquire it, as dinners—enormous, double-doggy-bag affairs featuring many organic and free-range ingredients—hover in the $16-$17 range. Or maybe they're just confounded by a place whose soul seems so glaringly at odds with its surroundings. Hilbo and Richardson and crew are charming in an engagingly Southern way, bringing out samples of deep-fried shrimp in mole sauce (delectable) and sour cream Tennessee cornbread (moist and ever so rich) from their own feast in the kitchen, or adding their voices to the bluesy Cajun music jangling the silverware. But they're about it for atmo. A place whose food has this much character needs creaking floorboards, a haze of blue smoke, a teeming bayou out back. Hilbo's, by contrast, is a sanitized white room across from Gregg's Green Lake Cycle. Shredded muslin curtains and a mural of a foxy Cajun woman standing before a burning plantation are meant to evoke a little Southern heat. Instead they make the place look like the stage set for a junior high production of Gone with the Wind. Looked at another way, of course, a place whose food has this much character doesn't really need atmo at all. Oyster pie ($7), the daily appetizer special, was a fascinating festival of smokiness and brine, punctuated with little hits of celery and anisette. We acquired a taste for the heady concoction in the time it took to swab the last traces with Hilbo's good French bread. For dinner we sampled the menu's least spicy entrée, smoked pork tenderloin ($18.50) stuffed with andouille sausage and topped with red pepper jelly, and found it more accessibly delectable. Rich sweet-potato grits were a fine counterpoint. Our other entrée was smoked, braised duck, ($17.50) served in a deep fiery sauce reminiscent of Hilbo's gumbo. Everything about this dish was rich, from the moist dark meat to the heavy sauce to the buttered pecan-raisin rice smothered in sauce. By now we had learned how to cope with the formidable power of this food: We ate slowly, letting the temperature cool, taking a good portion home. Over our own dinner table the next night we encountered the true glory of Creole cuisine: The flavors in here, blended and matured, began telling us stories of Gen. Lee and the fall of Dixie. Overwhelming yes—but overwhelming appears to be the whole point in Hilbo's Creole world. Bring a massive appetite and an open-minded palate to dinner at Hilbo's, take half of it home in a doggy bag, and do not forgo dessert: Hilbo's pecan-sweet-potato pie ($4.50) is a masterpiece. The honey crème brûlée ($5) and honey crème brûlée Napoleon ($5.50) are both sweet as sin, and particularly fine with Hilbo's French market chicory coffee. There is, it should be noted, no decaf. Surprise, surprise.