When your GPS can't tell you how to get there, your destination is off the beaten path. But Knotty Pine on the Bayou is definitely worth the trip.
We were amazed to see the size of the weeknight crowd. It never occurred to me that we might need a reservation on a Thursday night -- in most parts of town these days, you don't. But Knotty Pine has something most places don't -- a Thursday night crawfish boil (market price, recently $23).
I haven't seen so many crustaceans in one place at one time ever. Platters piled high with bright red shells and tables of hungry eaters calling the servers by their first names. These are not newcomers.
We left the crawfish to the regulars, though. There were too many other things to try. Starting with fried oysters ($12.95/half dozen, $18.95 dozen), which, as most people who know me know, are the appetizer on my "Last Supper" menu. Oh yes, Lord, take me to heaven with a belly full of fried oysters and I won't mind the trip. Knotty Pine did a fantastic job on theirs: lightly battered and delicious. Just for giggles we had a big plate of curly fries ($4.95), much more flavorful than the fast-food version.
Another pleasant surprise was the fried alligator ($11.95).
It can be ordered as an appetizer or as an entrée, so we gave it a taste test, and it was delicious. Not nearly as gamey as the alligator I had at the (since closed) martini restaurant in Hebron -- this was actually good enough that I would order it again even after the novelty had worn off.
It was great to see how well Knotty Pine's staff got along. There's a lot of teamwork -- a friendly hostess who did some juggling to make sure we had a comfortable table with very little wait. Servers who volunteered to bring water and bus tables for each other -- no eye-rolling martyrdom involved. And a low-key bartender who poured two shots at once -- not because he was showing off, just because it was more efficient.
Next came tossed salad with Thousand Island dressing, and an aficionado who has had it on multiple continents, if not actual islands, enjoyed it. The salad alternative is cottage cheese, and I had to laugh. It unapologetically was a white ceramic bowl of cottage cheese -- no more, no less, no flourishes.
They blend their own spices at Knotty Pine, but they don't insist that you try them. I decided to go for the evening's special fish: grouper, a favorite, blackened. I was torn between grouper and etouffee, and pleasantly surprised when our server hinted that there's a way you can have both. Just order the fish with etoufee on top ($26.95). What a great idea! And the gravy that came with the rice -- a cheesy béchamel -- was delicious.
We also tried the traditional red beans and rice ($3.95) and a small cup of gumbo ($4.95). The gumbo was outstanding. They had cooked the roux until it was truly smoky, and the smoked flavor brought out the best in the rich, thick stew. The red beans and rice was genuine, just the simple tastes that come through so well.
On to the next adventure: frog legs ($16.95). I have always had a hard time bringing myself to eat them. Thinking of those legless frogs in their little wheeled carts always got to me. But again, our server said the magic words. When she asked if we would like them deep-fried or sautéed, and we hesitated, she suggested, "Or, you can try some of each..."
Sold! We each went for the deep-fried version first, since the crisp breading made them look a little less, well, froggy. They did not taste like chicken! They tasted better than chicken, a lot more moist and succulent. And the sautéed hoppers? Garlicky and delicious. I actually preferred them.
Sides like collard greens, green beans and red-skinned potatoes held their own, but we were determined to save room for Knotty Pine's signature dessert, the Karma Cake ($4.95).
When I interview the owner, Kathy Caulfied, for the recent CityBeat Dining Guide, she told me the story of this family tradition. Apparently, Karma is more than a reward for good deeds in Kathy's family: It was her grandmother, her aunt and now her sister's name. And Karma, Cathy's sister, bakes the Karma cake from an old family recipe for opera cream cake.
This version is simpler than the multilayered opera cream I've had in the past, but it was every bit as moist and less overwhelmingly sweet. The cake is topped with opera cream frosting -- much like the filling in an opera cream -- and a drizzle of genuine, fresh raspberry puree (not beret!). It was excellent.
Karma earned her heavenly reward if I were the one doling them out.
KNOTTY PINE ON THE BAYOU Critic's Pick
Go: 1802 Licking Pike, Cold Spring
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty