Carla Meyer

Dining review: Which Celestin's will you encounter?

For our latest look at Celestin's, the Cajun-Caribbean restaurant in midtown with the brightly colored walls and the largely heartwarming food, I decided to look to the past.

I delved into The Bee's archives for clues to why my experience at this restaurant was sometimes charming and occasionally underwhelming.

I wondered why, for instance, we were greeted with a frown one night, followed by a not-so-charming question, "Two?" Call us old-fashioned, but when we show up voluntarily at a feel-good restaurant with intentions of handing over our money, we expect a little bit more, starting with a smile and "hello."

The next time, the woman who welcomed us sported a smile as bright as the midday sun and acted as if our arrival meant something.

The third time only reminded us why this restaurant, in the reviews dating to the mid-'90s by my esteemed predecessor Mike Dunne, had garnered adjectives from all corners of the dictionary.

"The gumbos have been substantial and intense" (1996); "We can't recall the gumbo ever being less compelling" (2006); "gutsy French-Caribbean cooking" and "a slice of vibrancy and joy of Carnival" (both 2002).

Back then, sometimes the problem was the food and service, sometimes the shaky hand with the mixed drinks.

Now? It is vibrant only part-time and lethargic some of the time. Gutsy? Yes, it took some guts to send out one of the dried-out and chew toy-tough pork dishes.

That third greeting we got? A different woman was at the front "greeting" station. And she was reading a book – by Shirley MacLaine.

Fortunately, Celestin's is not competing in the reality show "America's Next Top Charm School." It would fare much better on "Project Gumbo."

Celestin's has been serving comfort food since long before mac 'n' cheese went from that stuff you made from a box with the packet of atomic-orange dust to the "gourmet" cliché found on practically every menu in town.

And this place gets it right often enough to warrant a solid recommendation as a casual eatery with food that comes from old-fashioned values with a twist of the funky and exotic.

But the tone set by employees needs to be more in sync, more upbeat, more fun. It needs to mirror the food, which, at its heart is lively, homespun, cool, soothing and a little bit spicy.

As for the nose-in-her-book host? I'm going to suggest "Lessons in Service From Charlie Trotter" ($24.95 in hardcover). That's a book that hammers away at the message that a restaurant must make guests feel special.

After nearly 30 years, Celestin's obviously knows what it is doing, but it sometimes forgets the fundamentals that made it a "landmark restaurant" (2006).

The inconsistent message at Celestin's is a shame, not a tragedy, mostly because the food, when it's on, can be charming.

In fact, if you've got the blues, I can think of no better antidote than showing up at Celestin's in the midst of happy hour. Grab a table outside. Order a cold adult beverage (like the "luxury mojito"). Get a good deal on a couple of appetizers. Sink your teeth into some fried polenta that has been fashioned into delicious habanero corn cakes. Then, wait with anticipation for the main event – a bowl of house gumbo, fully loaded, piping hot.

The gumbo is the focal point at Celestin's, which likes to tell customers it is the best darn gumbo in town. That's because it's pretty much the only darn gumbo in town.

During one of several visits, I chose the house gumbo, which features an impressive hodgepodge: tiger shrimp, scallops, red snapper, chicken and kielbasa sausage, all simmering in a deep, dark broth with sassafras, onions, celery and green bell pepper.

There's not necessarily a right or wrong answer with gumbo. There are about as many gumbo recipes as there are men dressed like women in a Mardi Gras parade in the Big Easy.

Making gumbo comes with some rules. You mustn't skimp on ingredients. The roux must have enough oomph to hold up to all of the disparate flavors swimming about. And the myriad ingredients must not only stand out, chunky and meaty as they are, but work together in a unified, lively way.

It's simple, but not necessarily easy. It cannot be rushed, and it takes an experienced palate in the kitchen to taste and adjust along the way.

The gumbo I tried was as lively and inspiring as Louis Armstrong letting loose on trumpet, and there was so much of it I could barely eat half.

The steak, a blackened rib-eye topped with a dollop of herbed butter and plated with crisp "jerk" french fries, was a pleasant surprise – nicely cooked, a flavorful and tender piece of meat. And while the fries were decent, they were supposed to stand out as spicy. They didn't.

The paella, like the gumbo, can be done many ways. You'll find aficionados who insist it must have a crispy, nearly burnt bottom crust. Celestin's paella lacked that telltale crustiness, but it won me over with its rice, ample chunks of chicken, shrimp and scallops, even olives and peas and generous saffron.

Those dishes all were winners, comfort food champs for certain. We were hoping for the same with the "grio," marinated chunks of pork that are braised and then deep-fried. Our dish suggested a rush job, as they were crisp but way too dry. A nice long braise might have produced something more tender and much juicier.

The grilled Panini crab po-boy could have been a winner with its nice, fresh flavors, but the sandwich had been pressed to death. So the bread was tough and a tad greasy by the time it got to our table. The sweet potato fries were nothing more than decent.

Our black bean vegetarian burger was a good option for a meatless dish, as it was dense and tasty, but not dry.

For dessert, the standout was the key lime pie, which sported the boldest flavor of any dish in the restaurant – a big burst of limey goodness in a creamy custard.

This restaurant still can produce a memorable meal. It is not fine dining and doesn't pretend to be. This is comfort food, and affordable at that.

There is just enough of an exotic island twist to get our attention. But I suggest honing that angle a little more, and getting all those flavors up to par more consistently. Sometimes our food really hummed and sometimes it was too tame.

And while we encountered good service, it was sometimes the jovial server handling other tables who helped out with ours when our person went AWOL. There's nothing worse than plunking down our credit card with the bill and wondering how long it will take our server to notice.

OK, maybe reading a book by Shirley MacLaine while working in a restaurant is worse.

CELESTIN'S

1815 K St., Sacramento

(916) 444-2423

www.celestinseats.com

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; dinner 3:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 3-8 p.m. Sunday.

Full bar? Yes.

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

Takeout? Yes.

Overall 2 stars (fair)

While comfort food with an island twist can win nearly anyone over, occasional inconsistencies in the kitchen and uneven service can sour the experience. Honing the fundamentals that have made it a landmark restaurant since it opened in 1983 will give it a stronger presence in the city's more competitive restaurant scene.

Food 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

Very good gumbo, good habanero corn cakes, pretty good paella, steak and black bean veggie burger. A few sandwiches and other dishes fell short. After all these years, it's still a destination for heartwarming food.

Service 2 stars (fair)

Bogged down by inconsistencies. A couple of engaging servers, a few pretty good ones and so-so ones, and one, ahem, reading a book instead of greeting guests.

Ambience 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

The vibe on the patio can be pleasant on a spring or summer evening. Inside is bright and cheery, though some might find the energy a bit low.

Value 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

Prices are in the low to high teens for much of the menu, and the portions are ample.

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