As the weather grows warmer by the day, and gardens blaze with color, spring arrives with celebrations throughout Louisiana. For many of us, this means hosting family dinners. In addition to traditional ham, turkey or spring lamb, pasta with shellfish may serve as a nice alternative for a spring feast. Chef Ken Veron’s recipe for Kahlua grilled shrimp on angel hair pasta gives us a reason to crank up the grill, while watching the little ones ride bikes, fly kites, or run through the newly green grass.
Chef Veron, owner of Lafayette’s popular Café Vermillionville, created this dish. It was the Gold Medal winner in the seafood category at the 1988 Acadiana Culinary Classic. His handsome dining establishment on West Pinhook is as good as it gets in Lafayette, where people cook and eat with gusto.
The restaurant is set in a pre-Civil war building with exposed beams; a wall of natural light in the Garden Room enhances the interior space. Diners sit in comfortable in captain’s chairs while they await the spectacular cuisine of Chef Veron. Dark woods and antiques create a stately aura. In cooler months, flames flicker in the fireplace, taking the chill off and setting a romantic tone.
One of the best starters I have had while dining here is luscious pan-seared crab cakes made with Louisiana lump crabmeat, served with a lemon dill beurre blanc. A second favorite is the addictive crawfish beignet, served with a spicy Creole mustard aioli. In Chef Veron’s words, “Our most popular dish is the crawfish beignet. We serve it for weddings, rehearsal dinners and as appetizers. You make a bacon mira poix in advance; then you take three cheeses and the crawfish tails, and make a ball out of it. Dust it with flour and deep-fry it. To me, crawfish works better with cheese and dairy products, and the bacon adds a little smoky flavor to it.” Spring is a great time of year to order any dish made with fresh crawfish. “It looks like we’re going to have a great year for crawfish,” Chef Veron comments.
My advice is to order the café sampler which includes a crawfish beignet, a crab cheesecake filled with jumbo lump crabmeat and vegetables set in a cream cheese filling, alligator Dijon, and some delicious grilled crawfish sausage. “My family makes Cajun sausage with crawfish and pork in Lutcher. It is distributed out of my brother’s business in Texas,” says the chef. “My whole family has been in the meat business forever. Veron’s Sausage is my cousin’s business,” Veron adds. “I grew up working in the grocery store cutting meat, so the restaurant business comes naturally to me. Our sausage is unique. We also use Veron’s andouille in our gumbos.”
The most popular gumbo served at Café Vermilionville is made with smoked turkey and Veron’s andouille. “We’ll take a whole turkey and smoke it, de-bone it and then we’ll throw the bones into the pot and make the stock.” Now that is a good idea for those of you who have leftover turkey, any time of the year! “Our best selling soups are corn and crab bisque, and our turtle soup,” Chef Veron reveals. “We use real turtle meat mixed with ground up alligator. Turtle by itself is really strong tasting. You cook it with a little sherry, lemon juice and tomato. We serve it with a cup of dry sherry and chopped egg. It’s really spicy.”
The corn and crab bisque calls for sautéed onions, bell peppers and roasted corn “cooked down.” Chicken stock is added; then lump crabmeat is folded in; the soup is finished with heavy cream. “You don’t want the cream to break,” Chef Veron cautions. “You can’t get it too hot. You have to keep it at just the right temperature.”
A wonderful salad to order is the warm spinach salad prepared with baby spinach tossed with apple-wood bacon pecan vinaigrette, then laced with Bermuda onions, chopped eggs, tomatoes and Gruyères cheese. Among the finest entrées I have sampled is the seared duckling (Chef Veron is an avid hunter and has a great recipe for speckled belly duck). The dish is designed with pecan-smoked maple leaf duck breast, duck thigh confit and tasso wonton, Louisiana mayhaw glaze, pecan and dried cranberry risotto, and an airy carrot soufflé.
Gulf fish Acadian is always interesting, and changes daily. “We use all Louisiana gulf fish,” notes Chef Veron. “We don’t know what we’re going to get from day to day. Sometimes it’s grouper or baby drum. We normally serve it with jumbo lump crabmeat, but it works just as well with crawfish.” The fillet is seasoned in a house blend of spices, broiled in white wine and butter, and laced with lump crabmeat or crawfish tails in a roasted corn and herb beurre blanc, served with creamy Parmesan risotto and asparagus spears.
The knockout beef entrée is the steak Louis XIII. “This is something that a customer wanted us to make up. He wanted stuffed beef tenderloin with crawfish,” Chef Veron discloses. He uses the same three cheeses for the steak as for the crawfish beignets. A pocket is cut in the six-ounce filet mignon; then it is stuffed, grilled and finished in the oven. “We serve that with a mushroom demi-glace on the bottom and a crawfish Mornay sauce on the top. We had that dish off the menu for years and it was our best seller, so we finally put it on the menu.”
For dessert, order key lime pie, pecan pie a la mode, or ethereal white chocolate bread pudding enhanced with Godiva white chocolate liqueur. “My pastry chef has been working for me for 21 years,” reveals Chef Veron.
If you would like to try Chef Veron’s Kahlua grilled shrimp at your next family celebration, the recipe is fairly simple. “I use Tiger sauce in the marinade, which also calls for honey and Kahlua,” he details. “When you grill it, the sugar caramelizes on the shrimp. The Tiger sauce gives it a special flavor, because it is made from cane syrup, vinegar, Worcestershire and anchovies.”