by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Rabalais’ Bistro    
861 E. Main St.
Santa Paula    

    If you’ve eaten at Rabalais’ in Santa Paula but never ventured beyond the beignets, you could be forgiven. Those large, pillowy, better-than-doughnuts, dusted with powdered sugar are a culinary world unto themselves, and more than enough dessert for even die-hard sugar fiends. But the Creole bistro’s beignets are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Southern-inspired sweets.

We recently enjoyed a fabulous and filling brunch that was marred only by the absence of those famous beignets, which were sold out. We consoled ourselves with a selection of delights that more than made up for a lack of deep-fried deliciousness.

A slice of pecan praline cheesecake had something akin to both the pie and the candy, which added crunch and sweetness to the dense cream cheese custard — wisely low on sugar to let the pralines shine but not cloy. Rich and filling, to be certain, but every bite goes down smooth and easy.

Key lime pie is, of course, a Southern staple, and has been named the official pie of the state of Florida — by an act of that state’s Senate, no less (SB 676). Whether Rabalais’ version uses true Key limes from the Florida Keys or the more readily available Persian variety, I can’t say — and not being a purist, I don’t much care. From my taste buds’ point of view, the bistro’s recipe is quite successful, if perhaps not the very best I’ve ever had.

The banana cream pie, on the other hand, was in a class all by itself. Banana flavor goes all the way through the pale yellow custard, supremely creamy and velvety smooth, with tender slices of banana between the crust and the filling. These pies come in single-serving tins, which are plenty large enough to share — but so scrumptious you may not want to.

A humble gingerbread cookie was a last-minute addition to our dessert order and lacked the prestige of its more impressive counterparts. But there was something about its thick, crinkly appearance that called to me. It did not disappoint: toothsome and spicy, loaded with butter for that perfect cookie chew. Bits of chocolate chunk made for a very wintry essence.

When the po’boy, gumbo and fried green tomatoes call, Rabalais’ will be waiting for you. But spare a moment (and some room) for the amazing desserts, which are well worth the calories. Southern charm never tasted so sweet.