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Cajun restaurant owners built on culinary legacy of Mama Roux

Claire Canavan
The French Quarter Grille opened in north Austin six months ago. This is the Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo.

Growing up in the landlocked city of Lubbock, Dave Gore never would have imagined that one day he would specialize in Louisiana style Cajun cooking. His family didn't eat a lot of seafood and he says he had "never even seen a crawfish."

Today, after many years spent learning and mastering the cuisine as a chef at the popular restaurant chain Gumbo's, Gore co-owns and is the executive chef at the French Quarter Grille in North Austin.

Gore never planned to become a chef. While enrolled at Texas Tech University as a studio art major, he learned the basics of cooking through his job at a little French and German inspired café across from the university.

After moving to Austin in 1994, Gore needed a job. Gore was referred by a friend to Cajun chef Michael Amr, a Baton Rouge, La. native, who, along with his wife, Yoli, was just opening the original outpost of Gumbo's in a strip mall on Bratton Lane.

Gore showed up for the job interview with long hair and a beard. He recalls with a laugh that when he asked if he needed to cut his hair and beard for the job, Amr replied, "You won't be here long."

His first job at Gumbo's was as a food expediter, but as the restaurant expanded Gore soon worked his way up to become sous chef at the downtown Austin location and then executive chef at the historic Round Rock location. Gore stayed with Gumbo's for 16 years even as the Amrs sold the business to a company called Fired Up and opened their own new Cajun restaurant, Mama Roux, in 2009.

In 2010, Gore wanted a change, so he started training for a job at a restaurant operated by the Pappas Brothers. He was commuting back and forth to Dallas when he got the news last February that Michael and Yoli Amr had died in a suspected murder-suicide days after closing Mama Roux. Gore attended their memorial service and found it to be thought-provoking.

"Mike was like a brother or a father figure to me," Gore says. "He always said that someday I needed to have my own restaurant. After that memorial service it hit home. If I'm going to do this, this is the time."

Gore found a willing business partner in Scott Stolle, a front-of-the-house man who had also worked at Gumbo's. The two realized that the Mama Roux location was now unoccupied and applied for the space. By locating their restaurant there, Gore's dream of having his own place could be realized in a way that also carried on the Amrs' culinary legacy.

"I wanted to take what Mike had taught me and Scott had learned from them and carry on the tradition of what they had done," Gore says.

When the two found out that the lease on the former Mama Roux location was either going to go to them, a pizza place, or a Starbucks, Gore figured the coffee chain from Seattle would get the space. But to his surprise, he and Stolle were offered the lease.

Over the next month, Gore and Stolle gave the space a makeover. They created an open kitchen and commissioned a local artist to paint a large New Orleans street scene that now hangs on the wall in the dining room. The interior of the new French Quarter Grille radiates a casual, warm vibe with brightly colored accents and jazz inflected R&B humming in the background.

The French Quarter Grille showcases traditional Cajun dishes, which Gore describes as being highly flavorful with "lots of cream and butter, lots of shellfish, and heavy on the seafood."

Gore, who developed many of the restaurant's recipes himself, offers three different types of rich, dark gumbo, including one that features a special type of sausage he ships in from Louisiana. With gumbo, Gore says the most important component is the roux, a mixture of flour and butter. "You have to take it right to the point before it burns," he says. "The darker the roux, the more rich, nutty flavor you get."

J.D. White, the sous chef and a native Louisianan, created a savory crawfish and andouille sausage cheesecake that the restaurant runs once a week as an appetizer special. Gore calls the dish, which comes topped with a Tasso ham cream sauce, "so rich and so good." Crawfish beignets and fried green tomatoes with crabmeat remoulade round out the appetizer offerings.

Among the main courses, Fish Pontchartrain-blackened fish topped with shellfish in a mushroom brandy cream sauce-is a top seller. For a lighter and less traditional option, Gore recommends the French Quarter Salmon. A salmon fillet is wrapped in prosciutto, grilled, and finished with fresh basil pesto, chilled crabmeat, and reduced balsamic vinegar.

For dessert, diners can crack open the burnt sugar crust of an orange crème brûlée or dig their spoons into a croissant bread pudding, depending on which specials are in rotation that night.

The French Quarter Grille opened on May 2, and Gore says they already have a lot of regulars, including a couple who first dined there within days of its opening and came back to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

The open kitchen has been fun, as guests often pop into the window to chat, wave hello, or say goodbye. "We've been blessed," Gore says. "We're getting a lot of great feedback from former Mama Roux's guests. Every day someone says thank you for opening this place back up."

French Quarter Grille

13000N Interstate 35, Suite 600. 832-9090, www.frenchquartergrilleaustin.com .

Hours: Lunch, Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays. Fridays and Saturdays to 10 p.m.