By Bernie Whitmore

People on their first drive down Water Street in a year or so are amazed at the transformation ~ not only has the streetscape itself undergone a major improvement, but there are crowds of people in the street, music and raucous good times spilling out of clubs… It may not be Bourbon Street, but it just got a lot closer, cuisine-wise, with Gumbo Restaurant.

Gumbo has three distinct dining areas: two are lounges and a third, the dining room, may be the most unusual room in town. Below street-level, its walls are made of huge slabs of ancient rough-cut rock; the floor is some sort of cast fieldstone and the ceiling features huge wooden beams. A stained glass window looks as if it were pried from an old chapel, but the mood is anything but pious. Each time I’ve dined at Gumbo, the energy level’s been set to high.

From my first sampling of their Oysters Rockefeller, Gumbo joined a small group of Worcester restaurants, each of which is a special niche of specialized cuisines that make up my favorites. But on a recent evening I joined a friend for dinner at Gumbo with the goal of delving deeper into their menu.

We started with the French Quarter Tart appetizer. A shell of rich pastry was filled with onions caramelized in ale ‘til they were dark and soft and sweet, then enhanced with herbes de Provence, topped with Gruyere cheese and baked ‘til the flavors merged. Served drizzled with balsamic vinegar reduction for an additional touch of sweet richness, sharing was the only downside: I wanted all of it.

Gumbo has a surprisingly large list of beers –~ both bottled and draft. In the spirit of autumn I sampled Shock Top’s Pumpkin Wheat. Yeah, I know Shock Top is really Anheuser-Busch’s “artisan line,” but maybe all the indie beer makers have taught the big guy how to make a balanced flavorful brew; there was no cloyingly-sweet pumpkin pie in your face here.

For his entrée, my friend chose Blackened Catfish. In the past decade or so, the process of blackening has been dealt a major black eye as it become synonymous with salty, dry and overcooked. But Gumbo’s menu explains the proper blackening process as developed by the master, Paul Prudhomme.

And true to their word, the large, thick filet of catfish had flavor and juices locked in by a crust of herbs and spices; “Nice afterburn,” my friend proclaimed. The mild white fish was served over a bed of spicy beans and rice. He ordered it with remoulade sauce and raved with every bite.

I chose one of Creole’s classic dishes, Seafood Étouffée. Gumbo’s chef deftly combined spices, vegetables and roux into a succulently rich stew-like étouffée that smothered tasty bits of crawfish and other shellfish served over tasty rice. Most of the mussels had fallen out of their shells and joined tender scallops and shrimp; until the very end of the dish each forkful contained some specimen of shellfish and rice. And that was the problem… it came to an end. I understand why Gumbo has earned such loyal customers!

Prior to this evening, each of my meals at Gumbo has ended with a slice of decadent Chocolate Pecan Pie and I swore I’d remain forever faithful to it. But the today’s objective was exploration so my friend chose Banana’s Foster and discovered another winner! Ripe bananas were flambéed with brandy, and then tossed with pecans and brown sugar. They were served with two large scoops of vanilla ice cream. The lava-hot bananas melted the ice cream and hid chunks of brittle-like sugary crunchy pecans. The portion was huge, so plan on sharing.

Ignorant of the fact that Gumbo’s dessert sizes tend toward “huge,” I also ordered Bread Pudding. This cube of French bread based pudding, though mousse-like and fluffy-smooth in texture, was firm and kept its squared edges. It was served with a dollop of whipped cream and drenched with butterscotch sauce. Too many sweets? No way; I found myself forking the last dregs of butterscotch off the plate. It might take a week, but I’ll run off the calories.

Water Street has regained its historic role as a major gathering place in town. But with Gumbo restaurant we’ve gained something just as important: superior casual dining with a Creole kick.

65 Water Street, Worcester