Good eating off the beaten path
Marksville has never been a tourist destination. True, it is a charming town next to a nature preserve and the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Reservation, and it is steeped in Louisiana culture. But before 1994, out-of-towners really wouldn’t have had a reason to go there unless they lived there, or were visiting friends or family. Now it is a big little city in Avoyelles Parish. The Paragon Casino attracts legions of gamblers, and regularly features pretty big name entertainers.
Add the Brown Bag Gourmet to the list of reasons to travel to the river parish.
The Brown Bag Gourmet is the latest gem to be unearthed along Louisiana Highway 1. It’s difficult for a restaurant, especially a tiny café like the Brown Bag Gourmet, to get noticed in a casino town, but restaurateur
Trent Bonnette is making a big noise with his cuisine.
In a parish (and state) that is known for delicious food, Bonnette adds just the right touch of what he calls “Louisiana flair” to American and international entrées and daily specials like Catfish Piccata, blackened catfish topped with lump crabmeat and a sumptuous andouille-crusted soft-shell crab dish topped with scampi sauce.
The Brown Bag isn’t much looking for tourists. The café is off the main Highway 1 drag and not open on weekends. Seating is limited, so business is mostly take-out. But Bonnette knows how to win over the hearts and minds of his small town clientele by serving outstanding standard fare like poboys, hamburgers and yes, even the lowly hot dog. And those items get dressed up with Louisiana flair. But that’s not what makes the Brown Bag special.
In an age where food supply companies and restaurants look for pre-packaged and reliable sources of commodities, Bonnette scours the rural countryside for the fresh food items and locally grown ingredients that he knows will gain recognition for his restaurant. Buying fresh and local makes all the difference, Bonnette said.
“We were the first ones here to use local products,” Bonnette said. “We use local items in our gourmet salads and the different sandwiches. We put our own creative spin on our entrées and they’re different from what you can get within a radius of hundred miles. Yes, we’ve got crab cakes and we’ve got a steak like other restaurants but ours is just a little different.”
Crab cakes are cooked with fresh corn taken off the cob and mixed in with Atchafalaya Bay blue point crab meat.
“The corn gives the crab cake a burst of sweetness when you bite into it,” Bonnette said.
The steak is a six-ounce fillet topped with Portobello mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese. It’s served with a salad of fresh spring greens and herb vinaigrette.
“I personally like gorgonzola cheese with my steak so I decided to try it out and so far it’s worked out for the restaurant,” Bonnette said.
The hamburger comes pre-seasoned from Babineaux’s Slaughterhouse in Breaux Bridge.
“Our hamburgers are made completely with Louisiana beef,” Bonnette said. “Our burgers have done us a lot of good. The burger is seasoned from within instead of just adding salt and pepper on top and they’re cooked on a grill instead of a griddle.”
Locally grown goat cheese provided by Wes-Mar Farms of Moreauville and fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, cauliflower, zucchini and squash grown by backyard gardeners also contributes to the success of the Brown Bag Gourmet.
Bonnette has to compromise on some foodstuffs not easily grown in the Pelican State.
“It’s quite a challenge to get fresh lettuce,” Bonnette said. “And avocadoes? It’s an item on our menu that we want and would love to have a local supplier.”
Despite the dazzling attraction of the casino, the Avoyelles Parish economy is largely based in agriculture. If you want to live there, you’re either on the tractor or dealing blackjack. And so for a bit, it was necessary for Bonnette to leave home. Where else would he have gotten the sense of food style that permeates the Brown Bag Gourmet without a stay in New Orleans? He landed a job at Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House and learned the front end of the restaurant business but was curious about the kitchen.
“That was when I was beginning to get an interest in flavors,” Bonnette said. “I lived close to the farmers market and got fresh produce all the time which spiked my interest and creativity. I didn’t cook professionally in New Orleans but I cooked a lot at home. I messed up a lot but found a way to do it correctly, which is why I tell people I’m self taught.”
While the metropolitan lifestyle was appealing, Bonnette decided he was a country boy after all and returned to Avoyelles.
“I was born in Moreauville and some would say that was a good thing,” Bonnette said. “I moved back to be close to my sister.”
Back in the bosom of Avoyelles, he helped open the doors of the Red River Grill in Marksville, Rosie T’s Diner in Simmesport and then took on executive chef duties at Legends Steakhouse inside Paragon Casino. Assembly line food for gamblers wasn’t on Bonnette’s life menu and he dreamed of owning his own place, using his own recipes.
“During my time at the casino I was planning this project and when I was ready to take the next step I talked to the bank and we got started,” Bonnette said.
“I really like Avoyelles Parish. I like the people here. We’ve got wonderful, super-nice people and great food. I don’t regret moving back at all.”
Details. Details. Details.
Brown Bag Gourmet
310 Acton Road Marksville, La
Monday, 10:30 am–2 pm. Tuesday-Friday, 10:30 am–8 pm.
This story was reposted from Louisiana-based agricultural and cultural blog LANote.org, a NoleVie content partner.