Photo by Lucie Monk
Zolia Bistro & Enoteca serves up a bite-sized take on the Southern classic shrimp & grits, complete with a Tin Roof Amber reduction sauce.
Promoting Baton Rouge's past, present, and future with contagious enthusiasm
On a Friday morning in downtown Baton Rouge, just before the lunch rush that will inundate area restaurants with neckties and business casual, Kimberly Harper stands up in the middle of Poor Boy Lloyd's Seafood Restaurant. She surveys the table before her where, minutes before, a waitress has served each guest a sample of the restaurant's signature hot roast beef poboy.
To be honest, not much remains: streaks of gravy, most of it sopped up by the crusty golden bread (now reduced to crumbs); a shred or two of iceberg lettuce; a shallow puddle of juice left by a tomato slice.
“C'est si bon?” Harper ventures to our seated group.
“C'est si bon!” returns the hearty chorus.
We step out onto the street corner. On the right, the Mississippi makes its presence known, adding a river-chilled breeze to the already brisk day. But no one is hurrying back to the office, anxious about the time clock. For our group, Poor Boy Lloyd's is just the first stop in an afternoon of food, contemporary culture, and still-resonating history.
C'est Si Bon Food Tours is a six-stop walking tour through downtown Baton Rouge, beginning at Poor Boy Lloyd's and winding its way to Stroube's, Zolia Bistro & Enoteca, The Lobby Café, Restaurant IPO, and the Kingfish Grill at the Hilton. The tours opened to the public in November 2013, but already the news has induced hive-like buzzing. Online reviews from sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp help to promote the business, but owner Kimberly Harper has also developed relationships with Visit Baton Rouge and the concierges at downtown hotels to get the word out to incoming visitors.
For the most part, though, Harper has found that out-of-town guests visiting friends or family form the largest faction of Baton Rouge food tourists. The trek, which provides samples at each restaurant, enlightening factoids, and the picturesque background of the city's revitalized downtown, provides the perfect platform for hosts to show off the unique flavors and engaging history of their city.
“[The visitors] have got no Tony Chachere's, no gumbo,” said Harper. “The locals have fun telling out-of-towners about Louisiana traditions.”
Native Baton Rougeans may consider it superfluous to have a young lady introduce them to dining highlights in their own hometown. However, locals will find joy in the tour-whether accompanied by visitors or not. Harper weaves together Baton Rouge's past and present culture with a brand of enthusiasm on which the city's future hinges, and her energy is contagious.
It's appropriate, then, that the company's name-and our group's eventual rallying cry-comes from the French phrase for “It's so good!” Even in its title, C'est Si Bon Food Tours celebrates the history, authenticity, and culture of Baton Rouge. A lesser company might have chosen “#DELISH” or “Yummiez!” but the success of C'est Si Bon relies on aptly deciphering the area and its people.
Harper says her inspiration for C'est Si Bon stems from an early experience, when her mother compiled and published a cookbook to help pay for her daughter's education. The cookbook was obsessively “kitchen-tested” and instilled in Harper a love for Louisiana's inimitable foodways.
With C'est Si Bon, Harper endeavors to help you “eat your way through Baton Rouge.” The cost of the tour—$45—pays for everything. For Harper, a good relationship with the involved vendors is extremely important. For each tour, she has three goals: “1. Have a good time. 2. Learn about the culture. 3. Fill up.”
We can't say she's asking too much.
On the Friday morning in December that I take the tour, everyone in the group has identified themselves as a local-or at least a temporary resident. Yet the trivia still flies fast and easy. “Did you know…” and “I heard…” become the most common sentence-starters as we tramp through the sometimes-drizzly streets, pausing at statues, buildings, and corners as Harper gestures and informs.
The progressive eating provides its own streamlined joy. Each restaurant in which we stop has already set the reserved table. Water is quick to arrive, followed shortly by the pre-selected sample (no worries, Harper checks for allergies and aversions when you make your tour reservation).
The one snag? It proves extraordinarily difficult to bid goodbye to these tasty morsels. It's not that the samples are small; just delicious. So delicious, in fact, that we leave wanting more. C'est Si Bon plans ahead for that. The tour pamphlet contains both a map of the area-with each stop pinpointed-and a series of coupons to the restaurants, handily paving the road for return visits.
As for the food itself…any description will pale beside the real thing. We slurp down cups of Stroube's duck and andouille gumbo and shrimp, corn, and brie bisque. I ignore my normal distaste for olives and quite enjoy the muffaletta at The Lobby Café. At Zolia, the Shrimp on a Hot Tin Roof-a twist on the Southern classic, shrimp and grits, with shrimp served over seared grit cakes and topped with a Tin Roof amber beer reduction sauce-provokes both conversation and murmurs of delight.
Elsewhere, Restaurant IPO's single duck popper packs a mountain of flavor into a molehill of an appetizer: duck, cream cheese, bacon, jalapeño, peach pepper jelly, and a finishing zig-zag of balsamic glaze. We end the afternoon too soon at the Hilton's Kingfish Grill with their chef's deconstructed take on bananas Foster, complete with fried nuggets of banana cream cheese.
I won't do C'est Si Bon the disservice of spoiling the trivia offered in the tour, but Harper shows a talent for marrying past and present. In one breath, she can indicate a restaurant's repurposed building materials and announce their evening drink specials. With her natural charisma, it's only a short while before group members are chatting and laughing on their own, all the while wide-eyed at the flood of new flavors and information.
The tour as a whole acts as an appetizer to Baton Rouge: a tantalizing skim over the city's cultural assets. In one afternoon with Harper and the C'est Si Bon Food Tours, both visitors and locals can see what the fuss is about. The roads may be frustrating. The weather is often uncooperative. But Kimberly Harper braves both roads and rain to escort hungry Baton Rougeans through the streets. And we're all the better for it.
Details. Details. Details. C'est Si Bon Food Tours Downtown Baton Rouge Thursday and Friday: 11 am-2 pm; 6 pm–9 pm $45; reservations required. (800) 838-3006 • batonrougefoodtours.com