Just as you cannot fully describe the splendor of seeing the sun rise over the Grand Canyon to someone who's never had that experience, it's difficult to fully communicate the grandeur of the Creole chicken-and-shrimp nachos at Creole with a Splash of Soul. Less the sort of bar staple you pick up with your hands, these are closer in spirit to Mexican chilaquiles; the seasoned tortilla chips are not a vehicle for shoveling toppings, but rather a base for a mountain of bell peppers, onions, jalapeños, juicy hunks of Creole spiced chicken and flawlessly cooked shrimp covered in a sauce somewhere between blackened alfredo and a luscious fondue. Akin to an open-faced chicken-and-shrimp pot pie, you find yourself eating it not with a fork, but with a spoon to lap up every drop of this delicious cheesy nectar, your only thought — other than "I should stop gorging myself but my heart won't let me" — that whoever came up with this stunning display is not simply a culinary genius but doing the Lord's work.
See all of RFT food critic Cheryl Baehr's restaurant reviews
The person responsible for this masterpiece is Ronda Walker, who until last year was engaged in a different noble pursuit. A veteran health-care professional who had spent 30 years in nursing, Walker found herself at a crossroads a couple of years ago when her health took a bad turn. After suffering three strokes, she found herself in an ICU bed, wondering if she was going to make it. As she started to reflect on her life, she realized that she had spent it not doing what she really wanted to do, and was determined to pursue her lifelong passion for cooking. Then and there, Walker resolved that, should she get better, she was going to open a restaurant.
That restaurant, Creole with a Splash of Soul, opened this May in the heart of the Grove at the intersection of Manchester and Boyle avenues. A reflection of her passion for Creole food as well as her father's deep soul-food influence, the restaurant has been a labor of love for Walker, who, against all odds, finally brought it to life after about a year of trying to get it off the ground. It wasn't easy. Between the lengthy rehab it took for her to get back on her feet following her strokes to her being pulled back into the health-care field during the pandemic to both do her part and raise money for her restaurant — something she did against her doctors' wishes — Walker has been fierce in her commitment to her dream.
That passion is evident the moment you walk into the restaurant and feel like you are in Walker's home. As passionate about interior design as she is about cooking, Walker has created a warm, sophisticated space outfitted in deep red and goldenrod colors. A seating area with a plush couch and pillows greets you on your right as you walk in the front doors. On the left is the sleek black lacquered bar with seating for approximately ten people. The rest of the space consists of the dining room, which is decorated with stunning black-and-white portraits of women in traditional African ensembles and black-and-gold filigree-style lanterns that hang from the ceiling.
It's the sort of place where you want to sink into your seat to bask in the warmth. However, the moment the food starts to arrive, you jerk to full attention. One after another, Walker brings out the sort of jaw-dropping dishes that you know are going to be delicious before even taking a bite. If the nachos are a case study in obvious decadence, the fried green tomatoes are a master class in understated beauty. The bread-and-butter-like pickled tomatoes are covered in a crisp, flaky breading — the kind you get on the hand-breaded onion rings of your dreams — with only subtle seasoning, so as to let the tomatoes' flavor shine through. A side of moderately spiced creamy creole "house sauce" has a pleasant tang that pairs perfectly with the sweet and vinegary vegetable.
Creole crab cakes are another delightful dish. Here, the fritters are overstuffed with crabmeat and little filler, and seasoned with what tastes like smoked paprika to give them a deeply savory flavor. There's a little bit of spice in the mix, which is underscored by a delightful dipping sauce that tastes like a smoky Buffalo-and-red-bell-pepper aioli that makes your lips tingle.
The same excellent breading on the fried green tomatoes coats the fried shrimp on the shrimp po'boy sandwich. The shellfish is fried flawlessly — it's cooked throughout so that the exterior coating crisps up to a gorgeous, pale golden color while the shrimp itself is snappy. Tucked into a pillow-soft hoagie roll and dressed with the mildly spicy house sauce, tomatoes, onions and pickles, it's no wonder this is quickly becoming the restaurant's signature sandwich.
Walker's red beans and rice are the sort of warm comfort you seek out now that the air has a chill in it. Wetter than some versions, the dish almost reads like a delectable Creole chili with just a backbeat of smoky heat. This is a must-try on any visit, as are the shrimp and grits, which can be described as nothing other than sexy. The white cheddar and parmesan grits are so rich and creamy they get all the way up to the line of saucy without crossing it. They are a glorious canvas for hunks of tender smoked sausage and shrimp — at this point in the meal I should stop being shocked by their perfection, yet I still find myself gobsmacked by how well Walker cooks them.
A simple vegetable fettuccine, mixed with zucchini, squash and mushrooms, is made transcendent by Walker's silken cream sauce. Her "Down on the Bayou" bone-in pork chop is yet another success thanks to a crispy breading that has a peppery seasoned flavor evocative of chicken-fried steak. Diced bell peppers are seared into the chop, forming a snappy coating of their own that pairs well with the drizzle of a red-peppery aioli that finishes the dish.
However, if there is one reason to go to Creole with a Splash of Soul — one reason Walker can point to for why she had to upend her life and follow her dreams — it's the Creole catfish. No matter how much catfish you have eaten in your life, you have never had catfish until you've had Walker's. If her prowess with cooking shrimp is impressive, the way she prepares her catfish should earn her a gold medal. The fillet, which is cut thicker than what's typical for catfish, is covered in cornmeal and pan-fried so that it's cooked throughout but remains so tender it's almost juicy. The fillet is placed over a bed of rice, then topped with Creole spiced shrimp. The piece de resistance, though, is the sauce that is spooned over the top of the shrimp and catfish and that pools at the bottom of the bowl. So savory, tangy and spiced, it's as if Buffalo sauce had a three-way with gravy and brown butter. Walker's next move should be to figure out how to bottle this magical concoction and become a billionaire.
Walker's talent is undeniable, as is her drive to see Creole with a Splash of Soul through. She admits it has been hard. Because the pandemic has tamped down business and she did not qualify for PPP funding (her business opened during the pandemic, not before, which excluded her), she's had to go back into nursing as a consultant to make ends meet, while still working full time at the restaurant. Still, she refuses to give up because she knows that this is her calling. She feels it in the depth of her soul, and when you dine at her outstanding restaurant, you will feel it too.
Creole with a Splash of Soul
4353 Manchester Avenue, 314-349-2385.
Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. noon-8 p.m. (Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.)
Creole chicken-and-shrimp nachos $14.99.
Shrimp po'boy $16.99.
Creole catfish $22.99
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