The crowds of a spring and summer evening on the River Walk can be daunting; there often seems to be no real goal in mind but the being there, the participation in the surge, the feeling of being an extra in a scene directed by an unseen hand.

I have to admit that being a part of this linear lemming show holds no interest. And I also admit that I find it fascinating — and best observed from the relative remove of the terrace of a riverside restaurant.

Boudro’s has long been such a place. Its just-segregated-enough patio is perfect for people watching, and the restaurant’s superior service reinforces both the illusion and the reality of being outside the fray. Even the acutely agoraphobic might find the experience fascinating. But because some might need an extra shot of courage (and because it’s just plain fun to make more of an evening of it), here’s a suggestion: Start your evening at Zinc, the champagne, wine and spirits bar also owned by the Boudro’s boys, Richard Higbie and Randy Mathews. It’s little more than a block away on South Presa — handily right across the street as you exit from the elevator at the River Bend parking garage.

A glass of champagne and a light and luscious appetizer such as the marinated salmon on flatbread “paddles” will set the stage admirably. Now you’re set to enter the restaurant through the back entrance on Commerce Street — just in case it happens to be a warm night on the river.

It’s hard to resist the mesquite-grilled Texas quail as one of your appetizers; the partially boned critter looks resplendent upon its bed of cheesy grits, and the flavors contributed by marinating in sherry, orange and soy, followed by glazing with Dijon mustard, are bold and beautiful. Pan-seared tuna — and we do mean just seared — derives much of its appeal from a very serious coating of cracked pepper and a dressing of soy, chile and vinegar that evokes Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. There’s also a bountiful bed of baby spinach and spiky chives to play Jeeves to Bertie.

Wild field mushrooms served over grilled baked polenta with goat cheese and a chipotle-thyme demi-glaze are another stalwart starter — perfect with a lusty red, now that you’ve had the champagne course. We can’t recommend too highly the JC 2004 Syrah from Santa Barbara County; it was the consummate chameleon throughout the evening.

Though Boudro’s has a cadre of waiters that have been with the restaurant for years, we had a fast-learning rookie with a feel for proper pacing. (The point, after all, was to be leisurely in contrast to the scene just yards away.) In due time, then, the duck. Billed as black-lacquered and glazed, this leg and thigh is first panseared, then braised in a heady mixture of soy, dark-roast espresso bean, orange, star anise and brown sugar for more than two hours.

The braising liquid is then reduced to serve as the glaze, and a side sauce of reduced blood orange with huckleberry and maple syrup is concocted. (Yes, I had to ask; it was that fascinating, and, no, I couldn’t have divined the complex process without help.) Thus anointed, the duck is perched atop more duck, smoked and shredded, and a mound of garlic mashed potatoes. Bring on the Syrah and prepare to be transported.

Tuna still seemed like a good idea, even after — or perhaps because of—the appetizer preparation. So we had it again, this time with a Caribbean marinade of achiote and a lacing with roasted- poblano butter. A citrus/tomato/fennel chutney is part of the package as well, as are new potatoes simply smashed to form a foundation for the fish. We have to admit that these flavors were less intense than the duck’s — it would have been hard not to be. But we also left no bite of tuna unturned.

We are also partial to Boudro’s woodgrilled fish fillet — precisely because of its elegant simplicity, and suggest that the blackened prime rib with Boudreaux butter also is not to be overlooked. That Syrah again — or almost any other red from the well-stocked wine list.

The name Boudreaux harkens back to the restaurant’s early days and the name’s original spelling — one that conjures Cajun influences still apparent in dishes such as the duck and sausage gumbo. The Louisiana bread pudding with whiskey sauce is another reminder of those roots, and it’s as light and lilting as a bread pudding can be; even the whiskey sauce has an almost perfumed quality. The only disappointment of the evening, in fact, was another dessert, the coconut custard with caramel sauce — a coconut-studded flan, in other words.

In the company of all the full-throttle flavor delivered by Boudro’s on other fronts, the custard comes up short, but it didn’t deter us from enjoying parting glasses of Justin Obtuse port and Pierre Ferrand 1er Cru de Cognac. As a toast to the teeming tourists still thronging the trammeled waterway, of course.

Author: Ron Bechtol

Photographer: Janet Rogers

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