A taste of New Orleans is being served up at Étouffée Restaurant in Modesto.
Executive chef and owner George N. Bertaina opened the restaurant at the end of February. He chose Creole — a mix of French, Spanish, African and Portuguese styles not to be confused with its more rustic, fattier and spicier cousin, Cajun — because of the building's New Orleans feel.
The building, which has housed a half-dozen restaurants over the years, including most recently The Brown Bag, Gran Finale and MoMo's Bistro, has wrought-iron fences and a gardenlike atmosphere.
Bertaina and business/personal partner Alicia Zabala both grew up in and out of the Central Valley, Zabala in Manteca and Bertaina in Merced.
Bertaina was the culinary division director at the Modesto Institute of Technology. He brings that teaching background into his kitchen. He has an apprentice program with classes and tests where his chefs can earn certificates.
The menu is a mix of Creole with Californian. Ingredients are local and dishes are made from scratch. Low-fat and vegan items are available.
"Everybody told me I was crazy when I opened," he said. "They said, 'You are opening in the hardest time in years. You are opening in a space that has had more restaurants than anybody else.' ... It doesn't mean we have to give up. We're still going to try to make excellent food."
They're also going to give people excellent entertainment. Entertainment director James Rasmussen has brought in live music almost every night.
Hear jazz and blues bands Fridays and Saturdays. Party Tuesday for "Get Fat Tuesday" with a blues jam, plus drink and menu specials. Restaurant bartender and blues artist Paul Tunkel opens most nights and also plays solo Wednesdays and Thursdays.
"I couldn't see opening up a New Orleans restaurant without having live music," Bertaina said. "Music is such a big part of New Orleans. And music has always been a part of my life."