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Bit of the bayou comes to town

Louisiana Grill promises real Cajun cooking

Louisiana natives Rob Durio and his wife, Sarah, have always wanted to move from their Cajun homeland to the West Coast.

But they didn't want to starve.

We were worried that we would be going hungry six months down the road, he said.

Not because of financial difficulties, however.

We knew we couldn't get crawfish and gumbo and great stuff like that out here, he explained.

And that was something they just couldn't stomach.

But they have come up with a way to have their West and eat, too.

Durio will be the chef for the new Louisiana Grill restaurant, which will soon open in the former Mexicali Rose building at the corner of Fourth and Fir streets in Medford.

The restaurant, whose liquor license has been approved, is being remodeled for an opening scheduled for early November. The restaurant is owned by Michael Desimone and Marlan Wallace.

As the name suggests, the restaurant will offer traditional Cajun cuisine such as gumbo and jambalaya, Wallace said.

When Mike suggested this, I thought it was a real intriguing idea because I knew there wasn't anything around like this, Wallace said, noting that it's difficult to find authentic Cajun cuisine between San Francisco and Portland.

While Wallace, 47, is relatively new to Cajun cuisine, he knows about Southern Oregon: He was born in Medford, where he was a standout player on the state champion Black Tornado football team in 1969.

A graduate of San Jose State University, where he played football, Wallace had owned a gym in California before coming back to the Rogue Valley. In addition to owning his own business, he has worked in several restaurants over the years, including everything from waiting tables to management positions.

Wallace, who will serve as general manager of the restaurant, said he and Desimone wanted to build a restaurant from the ground up.

We felt like if we were going to do it, we needed to be as real as possible in the back end, he said. That meant starting in the kitchen.

They promptly went to New Orleans, where they sampled the fares of countless Cajun chefs. During interviews, prospective chefs had to demonstrate their skills over a hot stove.

We went through quite a few before we found Rob, Wallace said, adding that Durio demonstrated the cooking and personality skills they were looking for.

The staff, roughly 30 people already hired, will begin training this week. The menu, which will include breakfast, lunch and dinner, is still being cooked up.

We're bringing in the real ingredients, Wallace said, noting that the crawfish and catfish will be bought from regional fish farms.

Another real ingredient is the chef and his cooks, he said.

Durio, 27, who was reared on Cajun food in his hometown of Lafayette, La., has been cooking up Cajun since he was a youngster.

Both cooks working under his supervision are Louisiana born and bred. They know how I like to cook, and they know about the food and the people, Durio said. That makes it a lot easier.

So does the fact that 1,500 pounds of spices have been ordered from a New Orleans supplier. And 2,000 pounds of smoked meats arrived Thursday. You can't find smoked meats here like you can in Louisiana, Durio said. Even our coffee, our tea, our mustard is from Louisiana.

His favorite dishes are varieties of jambalaya and gumbo. I also like to do a lot of `smother' foods, he said. Basically, you take a piece of meat -- a round steak or rump roast or chicken -- you brown it real well on each side, put in water and make a natural gravy. You cook that down and serve it with rice and gravy.

The Cajun people were poor people who basically lived off the land, he added. They would make soups and entrees out of whatever they had, different meats and sauces. They used a lot of spices.

Durio applied for the job after his mother-in-law noticed an ad placed in a New Orleans paper by Desimone and Wallace.

I started boiling crawfish in a restaurant in Baton Rouge when I was about 12, Durio said. I've worked in kitchens my whole life. I've worked with several chefs.

But Durio, who has held the title of chef at several restaurants, said the most important training he received was at home. My father's very Cajun -- my grandmother is also very, very Cajun, he said. I learned how to cook from both of them.

That's the Cajun flavor he intends to cook up in Medford. What we're going to offer here is authentic, traditional Cajun food, he said.

Marlan Wallace, co-owner of the Louisiana Grill, stands in the outdoor section of his new Cajun-style restaurant, set to open in early November. - Photo by Jim Craven