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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Thursday, December 9, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Charlie's Seafood

...it’s clearly a neighborhood seafood joint that has not only
withstood the test of time, but also transcended it.

When Charles and Ruth Petrossi opened the doors to their new place on Jefferson Highway in Harahan, the American restaurant industry as they knew it was quite a different animal than the one into which it would ultimately grow.

It was 1951. Harry Truman was in the White House. Seven million coast-to-coast viewers made Milton Berle and Texaco Star Theater the top rated show on television. The interstate highway system hadn’t made it to the drawing board yet, and it would still be another year before Harland Sanders would put a pressure cooker in the back of his car to travel the country trying to sell his idea for quicker cooking fried chicken to skeptical café owners. Cadillac tailfins wouldn’t stretch to full size for eight more years.

There was precious little different about Charlie’s Seafood for its times. It was not so much a restaurant as a neighborhood café, not unlike the tens of thousands of similar establishments that sprang up during the boom years following World War II. The formula for success was straightforward: hard-working owners, good food, fair prices, family friendly. Mom and Pop were chasing, catching and carving out their slice of the American Dream.

It was a time when franchise or chain restaurants were at best minor players in the industry. White Castle, America’s first burger chain, set up shop in Wichita as a hamburger stand in 1916, sixteen years before its Southern cousin, Krystal, started selling “button burgers” in Chattanooga. A&W can trace its history back to the hot day in June 1919 when one of the company’s founders sold his first mug of root beer for one nickel in Lodi, California. It wasn’t until 1925 that Howard Deering Johnson would serve the first scoop of his new and richer recipe ice cream at the soda fountain of his Quincy, Massachusetts drugstore.

Consider, if you will, that when the Harahan seafood restaurant opened as “Charles Sea Foods” in 1951, mixer salesman Ray Kroc was yet to even meet the McDonald brothers, and event that wouldn’t occur for another three years. It would be seven years before Pizza Hut tossed its first piece of dough, fourteen years before Subway opened the first of its current 33,000 worldwide sandwich shops, and a full eighteen years before Dave Thomas opened his first hamburger stand in Columbus, Ohio, and named it after his fourth daughter, Wendy.

Truth be told, at a time when casual family cafes were the mainstay of American dining, Charlie’s Seafood was little more than another dot on the map. Harahan itself was little more than another nondescript bedroom community along a federal highway. Even the new airport in neighboring Kenner had a more colorful history (named after daredevil pilot John Moisant, who crashed quite fatally on the site in 1910 while it was still farmland).

In a decade that would come to be known for its celebration of conformity, the restaurant fit right in. Now, sixty years later, the place still leaves little to no doubt about what it is. With glass bricks flanking the corner doorway beneath a bright red sign, another faded Pepsi sign touting the oysters to be found inside and Christmas lights tracing the roofline, it’s clearly a neighborhood seafood joint that has not only withstood the test of time, but also transcended it.

That’s not to imply that success came instantly once the door opened or steadily as the world around it changed and the restaurant became more iconic. In the wake of Katrina, Charlie’s shuttered its doors and stayed closed until a celebrated local chef got tired of having memory tug at his sleeve as he drove by twice a day.

The chef is Frank Brigtsen, whose family moved to Harahan when he was one year old and whose eponymous restaurant in Riverbend is widely regarded as one of the city’s true landmarks of Louisiana Heritage cuisine. To Brigtsen, himself a James Beard Award designee, Charlie’s was always his neighborhood’s family eatery, if not a root source for some of his ideas about native home cooking. Passing by the vacated Charlie’s as he drove back and forth to one of America’s most renowned restaurants, Brigtsen found a wistful nostalgia growing in his heart for the vacated café of his childhood, where he probably ate for the first time in a highchair. It finally got to him. He and his wife, Marna, bought the restaurant and reopened it in early July of 2009.

Two essential ingredients shared by both lionized chefs and prosperous restaurateurs are finely honed instincts and the steely determination to follow them. Brigtsen’s intuition told him to change as little as possible, and he listened. In fact, the only noticeable change to the restaurant’s exterior was a fresh coat of blue paint. The interior would require a little more ingenuity.

Resisting the temptation to rebuild Charlie’s into a stripped down version of his flagship restaurant, Brigtsen instead made the conscious decision to keep the menu as true to its original roots as possible. There are no real surprises here. The heart of the menu is seafood, most of it cooked in a predictable manner. You’ll find plates of shrimp, oysters and catfish with fries or potato salad and cole slaw with a homemade tartar sauce. There are a half dozen 12-inch po’boys and 8-inch “po’babies” to choose from, including the obligatory roast beef with gravy made from scratch.

The seafood served at Charlie’s is also available grilled for the more health-conscious and boiled in season. There are the salads, gumbo, bisque and shrimp etouffée you’d expect in a mom-and-pop seafood café, and a fixed rotation of daily specials. The few surprises to be found on the menu include an oyster and artichoke au gratin, shrimp calas (Creole rice fritters), buttered pistolettes filled with dirty rice mix (but no rice itself) and handmade Cane River Meat Pies® with Creole mustard and pepper jelly.

So just what is it that lifts Charlie’s Seafood above the hundreds of other similar restaurants that retain their status of “just another dot on the map?” There are two things, I think: the ironclad adamancy about both the freshness and provenance of the seafood that their purveyors cart through the door, and the enigmatic je ne sais quoi that separates the legendary chef from the glorified line cook.

The restaurant buys only Louisiana farm-raised or wild-caught Des Allemands catfish that is “deep-skin cut” for cleaner flavor. The shrimp is chemical-free from the Gulf Mexico. The “unwashed” oysters are harvested from meticulously inspected Louisiana beds; the blue crabs come live from Lake Ponchartrain and, on the rare occasions when live crab are unavailable, only locally caught and processed crabmeat is used. During their short season, soft-shell crabs are delivered alive straight from the bayous. Imported seafood is quite simply not tolerated. Period.

While Brigtsen’s duties at his namesake restaurant require him to spend the bulk of his time six miles from Charlie’s, his influence is still felt as strongly as if he was standing in the midst of a swarm of hissing fryers and steaming pots in the kitchen. Chefs Ronald Prevost and Gabriel Beard were, of course, hand-picked by Brigtsen, as was Cane native Janet Caldwell, who makes her Natchitoches-style meat pies by hand on site. One can only imagine the pressure they must feel to live up to the rigid standards Brigtsen used to build not so much his local restaurant as his national reputation.

It’s been said that the greatest kitchens are built upon a foundation of painstaking attention to the pickiest detail, and one gets the feeling that this is precisely what is going at Charlie’s. The food is all made from scratch, which in and of itself comes as no surprise; the one piece of kitchen minutiae that spoke volumes about the place to me was that the homemade tartar sauce starts out with homemade pickles.

On our first visit to Charlie’s, The Sensible One opted for the “Catfish-n-Grits” from the restaurant’s standing menu, a mustard and cornmeal catfish filet served with stone-ground Cheddar cheese grits and a Creole sauce. Instead of the expected plain piece of fish on a lump of grits, the presentation was more vertical than horizontal, giving the plate the overall effect of what one might more expect in a downtown white tablecloth restaurant that a resuscitated family place in suburban Harahan.

Leaning toward the shrimp etouffée until told that the day’s off-menu special was a braised duck breast with gravy served over dirty rice, I was rewarded with a dish the both embodied and embraced the cooking traditions of Louisiana’s early Cajun settlers. Beneath the surprisingly rich gravy, the duck could have been domesticated or shot on wing, I frankly wouldn’t know which, but the flavor was wild rather than gamey and enhanced by the deep and smoky flavors of the dirty rice.

A quick glance around the unassuming dining room makes me think that Charlie’s can seat roughly eighty people, give or take a few. If you’re going at night, you might want to plan on an early dinner, because they don’t take reservations, and as word has gotten out, the waits have become longer.

For people who, like me, grew up in the 1950s and 60s, Charlie’s Seafood is a defiant refutation of the notion that there’s no such thing as a time machine. It’s a throwback to a time when the night skies were lit by a silvery moon instead of golden arches, an era when America liked Ike, John Wayne was big man at the box office, and it was Howdy Doody time.

Under the watchful eye of restaurateur Frank Brigtsen, it’s still possible to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, if only for an hour or two, when dinner meant sitting down with the family instead of a burger in a bag. You should plan on going before any more sand manages to slip through the hourglass.

Charlie’s Seafood

Louisiana Casual Cuisine

8311 Jefferson Highway in Harahan

(Approx. 12 miles by auto from the

junction of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue)

Open Monday, 11:00 am - 2:00 pm

Tuesday-Saturday, 11:00 am - 9:00 pm

All major credit cards accepted, no reservations

Telephone: (504) 737-3700

Website: www.charliesseafoodrestaurant.com

Sunday, November 28, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Brocato's Eat Dat

For the most part, it’s Cajun plate lunch fare and it’s damn good.

It seems that whenever a shoestring restaurateur is knocked for lack of décor or ambience, the inevitable response is a growled, “You don’t eat da atmosphere, buddy.”

Well, maybe not, but no one in their right mind would ever deny that the vibe of the room itself is a vital component of any total, holistic restaurant event. Imagine, if you will, a bag burger in a room filled with sparkling chandeliers, or perhaps a terrine of pâté de fois gras being dished up in a hash house.

Over the years, such stunts have been attempted any number of times across America by “creative” restaurateurs with predictable results. Such juxtaposition of cuisine and ambience is more often an exercise in self-conscious eccentricity than genuine creativity and most diners see the prank for what it is, a one-time joke. Yawn.

Now and then, however, someone comes along and makes such a juxtaposition work, even though in the case of Brocato’s Eat Dat in East New Orleans, I suspect such a serendipitous result is more a case of under-capitalization than intent.

Had I not heard some buzz about good food coming out of the Eat Dat kitchen, I would have never driven the eleven miles or so to look for the place. After all, East New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish are hardly hotbeds of the city’s restaurants, and beyond Rocky & Carlo’s in Chalmette, most locals would be hard-pressed to name a restaurant in the area. Hell, most of then probably couldn’t even name Rocky & Carlo’s despite the fact the macaroni and cheese there is the stuff of local epicurean legend.

Consider the restaurant’s ambience or perhaps the lack thereof. To get to Eat Dat, you drive alongside a drainage canal in a middle- to lower-middle class neighborhood until you reach what appears to be a most unsuccessful, white cement block strip center. There’s a photographer’s studio at the back of the center, some space available at the front, and somewhere near the middle are two generic doors under a vinyl banner. A discount store neon OPEN sign flickers behind one of the door windows.

You enter a relatively large dining hall, large enough that the institutional tables and chairs are widely spread out to fill two-thirds of the high-ceilinged room. Next to the front door is a whiteboard where the day’s specials are scrawled, and it’s the first time you even get an inkling that the place might be far better than it looks. A second inkling comes when you look around only to discover that the place is crawling with more cops than a raid at a topless club. While The Sensible One and I were having lunch one day, nine – count ‘em, nine – of New Orleans’ finest came through for either sit-down or carry-out lunches. The city’s boys and girls in blue may not know how to do a lot about crime, but they do know how to eat and walking in on a bevy of them is a definite harbinger of good eats to come.

While some restaurateurs would never spare a single dime decorating their dining rooms, I’m not altogether sure that Eat Dat owner/chef Troy Brocato even forked over the first nickel. The walls are covered with whitish wallpaper that was probably part of the landlord’s low cost build-out. A cluster of fleur de lis bric-a-brac hangs higgledy-piggledy on one of the walls. Were it suggested that the room has any visual center at all, it would come from a blown-up sticker of a Saints helmet not unlike those found in the bedrooms of pre-adolescent schoolboys.

The floor is covered with a gray, industrial grade carpeting that seems better suited to a window-peeping private eye’s office, and the whole room features a noticeably high drop ceiling studded with fluorescent lights. Taken as a whole, the dining room looks not so much like a restaurant as it does the suicide note of a hopelessly inept decorator.

Despite the fact that such harsh lighting and uninspired décor provide a natural showcase for the unavoidable spills, drops, oops and other calamities of an intrinsically messy industry, the dining room at Brocato’s Eat Dat is boot camp spotless. Such cleanliness, I think, is not merely the predictable residue of diligence, but rather testament to a ferocious pride that starts with Troy Brocato and runs all the way through his small staff to the guy who bags the garbage and schleps it to the dumpster.

Brocato’s Eat Dat is on its surface a nondescript neighborhood place in a nondescript neighborhood, but at its very heart exists an unexpected confluence of heritage and birthright that manifests itself on steaming platters of classic Louisiana cuisine, the recipes for many of which start with the simple words, “First, make a roux.”

New Orleanians not in the know make the honest and understandable mistake of assuming that Brocato is a scion of the Sicilian family of confectioners whose gelati, cannoli and biscotti have been revered in the city for over a century. In truth, owner/chef Troy Brocato is an Opelousas lad, part of another family that has become synonymous with Cajun heritage cooking and its fusion into the Louisiana culinary mainstream – the Prudhommes. In point of fact, Troy Brocato’s great-uncle is the legendary Paul Prudhomme, creator of blackened redfish in his celebrated K-Paul’s restaurant and generally regarded as the godfather of updated Louisiana cuisine.

Brocato worked for thirteen years in his great-uncle’s Chartres Street kitchen, where chef Prudhomme, and later Paul Miller, always emphasized both consistency and adherence to the fundamentals of Louisiana heritage cuisine. The idea of Prudhomme as mentor is nothing new. Frank Brigtsen, whose eponymous restaurant is considered one of the city’s best, was the first chef to work alongside Prudhomme when K-Pail’s first opened for dinner. Before Emeril Lagasse became a celebrity chef, he had the good fortune to follow Prudhomme as executive chef at Commander’s Palace, where the foundation of Lagasse’s reputation can be found in the recipes Prudhomme developed and left behind.

While Brocato certainly learned the essentials of his craft in the Prudhomme atelier, like Brigtsen and Lagasse, he is no slavish acolyte to the K-Paul’s canon. The food at Brocato’s seems to feature fewer pepper blends than that at K-Paul’s, but whatever it may lack in zing is counter balanced by a depth and smokiness that serves as another level, a lower base upon which other flavors are built.

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the daily menus at Borcato’s. They’re computer print-outs on plain white copier paper and their language is simple and unadorned; adjectives are not sprinkled as freely as superfluous condiments in the menus of more affected restaurants. This straightforward honesty sets both the table and tone for whatever you order off the smallish menu.

The regular menu features seven items changed daily, and a second sheet of paper lists anywhere from six to eight daily specials. For the most part, it’s Cajun plate lunch fare and it’s damn good. There’s fried catfish served with crawfish etouffées; Cajun rabbit jambalaya with sauce piquant; bronzed chicken; blackened redfish; shrimp and roasted corn cheese grits; a pork chop of some kind; the usual suspects in restaurants with roots in the bayous and swamps.

There’s always a po’boy, and on Saturday nights, they often feature barbecue specials.

Two particular dishes deserve special mention: the classic barbecue shrimp, and the crab cakes served over cheese ravioli in a crawfish cream sauce.

In New Orleans, buttery barbecue shrimp is as much a mainstay in any local chef’s repertoire as Amazing Grace is to a hymnal. Created in the 1950s at Pascals’ Manale and re-thought by Prudhomme during his watch at Commander’s Palace, it’s remarkably simple: shrimp either baked (Manale) or sautéed (Prudhomme) with butter, spices and seafood stock. Brocato’s take on this old standby isn’t as spicy as many, but has a deeper flavor than most, suggesting that he works his sauce longer before adding the shrimp. While the gustatory variations of the Eat Dat version may not stray far from the culinary roots of the original, the result is one that easily stands side-by-side with the dish’s most celebrated and often cited presentations.

When one considers the three most prominent provenances of New Orleans cuisine – Cajun, Creole and Italian – Brocato’s crab cake entrée is one of the most successful integrations of the three into a single dish. The fried crab cake pays homage to the deep-frying tradition of the more rural Cajuns; the ravioli is, of course, Italian; and the buttery crawfish cream sauce could be used as an exemplar of traditional Creole technique. In all the restaurants of every ethnic background throughout a city justifiably famous for unique cuisine, very few dishes are served that so emphatically succeed in creating such an indigenous hybrid as Brocato accomplishes with his crab cakes.

In the face of Brocato’s well-crafted main courses, perhaps it’s splitting hairs to point out that the house salads offer room for substantial improvement. While there’s nothing inherently bad about the ingredients or their preparation, the only thing that stands out about them is their complete banality. Boring iceberg lettuce and dressings that taste no different than those poured from oversized food service jars make inadequate fanfares for the dishes to come. Many years ago, I castigated a restaurateur about his chintzy, unimaginative salad, only to be told he did it intentionally so people didn’t fill up on salad before the entrees arrived. It’s perhaps the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard from a restaurateur, but until Troy Brocato fixes his salads, it’s one he may want to commit to memory.

When all is said and done, I like the hell out of Brocato’s Eat Dat, but I readily admit to having a soft spot for out-of-the way places where the décor can most politely be called “haphazard,” the ambience is decidedly downscale and the food can hold its own with any white tablecloth joint in town.

Nothing lasts forever, of course. When a kitchen is putting out food as good as Brocato’s Eat Dat at about half the cost of places in the French Quarter, word will inevitably get around. At that point, Troy Brocato will have to look deep into his soul – and his bankbook – and decide how he personally chooses to define success. Here’s one hungry sinner who hopes he makes a wise choice.

Brocato’s Eat Dat

Louisiana Heritage Cuisine

8480 Morrison Road, East New Orleans

(Approximately 11.0 miles by auto from the

corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.)

Lunch served Tuesday – Sunday, 10:30 am – 4:00 pm

Dinner served Thursday – Sunday, 5:30 PM – 9:00 pm

VISA and MasterCard accepted, no reservations

Telephone: (504) 309-3465

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Middendorf's


The place is great, but I’m not sure it’s worth the fortune an eighty-mile round trip cab ride would cost. If you’re an absolute catfish connoisseur, you might go anyway, because an awful lot of Southerners consider the Middendorf’s Special to be the gold standard for catfish.

The two-lane highway looks curiously antiquated today, but until 1981 when the 21-mile bridge was completed, it was the major federal highway leading into New Orleans from Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. U.S. 51 still runs in a mostly straight line through the swamp between Ponchatoula (Louisiana’s strawberry capital) and LaPlace (the state’s sausage capital), but these days it runs in the shadows of the “double nickel” (Interstate 55).

When the interstate highway system started bypassing towns and cities, it was the death knell for countless mom-and-pop cafes that had flourished on America’s roadsides for the half century between Henry Ford’s development of an automobile affordable to the emerging middle class and the advent of cloverleaf exchanges and entrance ramps.

For the descendents of Louis and Josie Middendorf, it impacted the family business like an oil well coming in. The eponymous family restaurant had been doing well enough for its first 48 years of existence, but once the main highway stopped running past the front door and the entrance to the interstate where cars whizzed by overhead was opened ¾ of a mile up the road, the dip they expected never occurred. In fact, the reverse happened. Business boomed.

Directed by a half dozen mileage billboards starting just south of Jackson, Mississippi, cars pulled off I-55 at the Manchac exit, sampled the food and before long the business started growing rapidly through word of mouth. The chatter hasn’t stopped for 30 years.

The reason is catfish, a good portion of it fished out of Lake Maurepas (literally across the highway from the restaurant) plus nearby rivers and bayous. Now, fried catfish is hardly an earthshaking idea in a part of the country where it’s been served for as long as there’s been fish, batter “fixin’s” and cooking oil, but Josie Middendorf put her own twist on the old Southern favorite.

Taking a razor sharp knife, she sliced the filets as thin as she possibly could before battering and frying. The result is the “Middendorf’s Special,” a plate full of crisp fish so thin it curls up in the frying, served with hush puppies, slaw and fries. (The other named “Middendorf’s Special” is exactly the same, except that the catfish is cut thick instead of thin. Go figure.) I’ve never taken a clipboard for notes nor asked anyone, but my pseudoscientific method of gathering data, better known to most as eavesdropping, suggests that thin fish outsells its thicker brethren by a 2-to-1 ratio.

As I write these words, I am reflecting on the dozens of times I’ve stopped at Middendorf’s over the years, and I think I may have ordered something else (probably gumbo) once, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Friends who have tried items from the rest of the lengthy menu insist the quality of everything is impeccable and what I’ve seen carried past me seems to bear that out.

One item I have perpetually missed is the blue crabs. Boiled by the dozen, they are a visual delight to behold when they pass by my table, steaming. I keep meaning to order them, but creature of habit that I am, I don’t even open the menu anymore and order the “thin fish special” without thinking. About the time I’m halfway through, a tray full of crabs passes by and then I remember what I forgot.

From the highway, Middendorf’s looks like an old roadhouse, which I suppose it technically is, but the three inside rooms have the feeling of a family restaurant. With stained and lacquered wooden walls and institutional furniture, the place isn’t much to look at. At one point, the walls were dotted with taxidermically mounted specimens of oversized crawfish, giving the place a bayou ambience, but the critters are long gone. Oddly enough, the more interesting accessories are the door handles going out of the front and, of all places, into to the rest rooms; they’re brass alligators, approximately a foot tall, and whenever I see them, I wonder how many other visitors have walked away from the restaurant with equally larcenous ideas.

A second restaurant has been built next door, but isn’t generally opened except for Sundays or times when the overflow justifies such an action. It’s not uncommon to see a tour bus or two in front of what is essentially an annex.

Unless you’re coming to New Orleans by automobile, the chances are pretty good you’ll decide to skip the forty-mile, northwesterly drive from the French Quarter to Middendorf’s, and to be honest, you probably should. The place is great, but I’m not sure it’s worth the fortune an eighty-mile round trip cab ride would cost. If you’re an absolute catfish connoisseur, you might go anyway, because an awful lot of Southerners consider the Middendorf’s Special to be the gold standard for catfish. You certainly wouldn’t be alone; despite the drive, Middendorf’s is enormously popular with New Orleanians who regard the journey as simply another facet of the entire adventure.

Middendorf’s does an enormous volume of business, particularly for a mom-and-pop joint on a sparsely populated strip of two-lane highway. Consequently, the interval between the waitress taking your order and bringing the steaming food to your table is short enough to rival the burger delivery time in a New Orleans fast food franchise. While the timing may be comparable, the quality is anything but; the quality of Middendorf’s food, for what it is, has few peers in all of Louisiana.

Finally, there’s something reassuring about driving around the lake and across the marshes before arriving in a small town, elevation of three feet, where houses on stilts rise out of the backwaters, most people fish for a livelihood and the easiest way to get around is by boat. The town, such as it is, is known by two names – Akers and Manchac – and I could find neither one in the census. There are more people than I can count on my fingers and toes alone, but I wouldn’t need a lot of friends to find enough digits, or much time for that matter, to take a census of my own. Outside Middendorf’s, there’s a beer joint, a bait shop and not much else. The buzzing interstate highway immediately overhead, and within feet of Highway 51, is a world away.

It’s the kind of place where a fish house should rise above the marshes, and thank God one does. When all is said and done, Middendorf’s also rises above most other restaurants for miles and miles around. It’s a thin slice of America you really don’t want to miss.


Middendorf’s, 30160 Hwy 51 South in Akers, LA

Lunch and Dinner served Wednesday – Sunday, 10:30 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.

Most major credit cards accepted. No reservations.

Telephone: 985-386-6666

Website: www. middendorfsrestaurant.com

Images courtesy of middendorfsrestaurant.com

Monday, August 16, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Venezia


Vieni, ordine, mangiare, divertirsi, salario, congedo.

(Come, order, eat, enjoy, pay, scram.)

New Orleans has its own culinary patois, an often curious jumble of misnamed items (barbecued shrimp, Bordelaise sauce), mangled pronunciations (“my-nez” for mayonnaise, “praw-leen” for praline) and odd names that start to make sense if you think about them long enough. My favorite of the latter group is “red gravy.”

Chances are, you know it as “spaghetti sauce,” maybe “marinara” if you come from a city with a large Italian population, or maybe even “red sauce” if you grew up in the heartland. But in New Orleans, red gravy it is, and I like the name almost as much as I like the sauce.

There’s something earthy about the term “red gravy.” It’s what Stanley Kowalski would tell Stella he spilled on his bowling shirt. While it certainly can be exquisitely prepared by a capocuoco di cuicina in a tony trattoria, you can also buy it in quart jars at the supermarket.

The reason for writing about red gravy is not to wax rhapsodic about its flavor or spectrum of varieties, but rather to put one of my favorite restaurants in proper context. That restaurant is the original Venezia location on Carrolton at Canal, and the best way to describe it is as a red gravy place.

Venezia has been around since 1957, and is reputed to have been a closer-to-home substitute for Mosca’s, the legendary roadhouse that was used as a gathering place by alleged Mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello. There is no doubt that Venezia was considerably closer to the Marcello mansion in Metairie, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether the restaurant actually has a scandalous history or if that’s just a legend that current management allows to go unchallenged, because it’s good for business. At any rate, there were very few changes made to the place during its first 48 years, and if Katrina hadn’t flooded it, the place might still look like someone broke the clock back during the Eisenhower administration.

New Orleans, of course, cherishes its older institutions with fervor, and it’s apparent with your first look at Venezia. The building is a nondescript white box, like so many old establishments in the city. Above the building length canopy, which protects guests from inclement weather, is a vintage neon sign reading, “Venezia/Pizza Pie/Italian Food.” How long has it been since you’re heard anyone under the age of sixty mention a “pizza pie,” let alone seen it glowing on a restaurant’s neon?

Once you go inside, there’s no foyer to speak of and you’ll find yourself standing in the middle of the dining room. No one seems to mind, hell, no one seems to notice, but before long you’ll either be lead to your table or, depending on the crowd, to the bar in the back of the house for a wait that usually isn’t too long. Soon enough you’ll learn the reason for short waits is the speed with which the restaurant tries to turn over its tables.

The room is plain, and what little art there is on the walls consists mainly of clichéd images of Italy. The tables are close together, close enough that on one of our first visits, The Sensible One and I couldn’t help but overhear a young couple on an obvious first date discussing restaurants (which is how we learned about the amazing fried bell pepper rings at the Franky & Johnny’s bar on Arabella Street).

One quick glance around the restaurant made it clear than not only were we the only non-residents in the room, but the way our ruddy Scotch-Irish complexions stood out, we were likely the only non-Italians as well.

When our server brought the menus, it was plain to see the restaurant’s emotional linkage to the substantial Italian immigration into New Orleans during the Nineteenth Century. Bordered by the red, green and white of the Italian tricolore was a line drawing of la Piazza di San Marco in Venezia (proper Italian for Venice) with a couple and their gondolier in a foreground gondola. I may reluctantly concede the image isn’t quite as hackneyed as a winking chef making the “okay” sign, but it’s certainly evocative of days gone by when the use of terms like “spaghetti house” and “pizza pie” were part of the everyday lexicon.

There are no surprises inside the Venezia menu, either. It’s no-nonsense Italian food: spaghetti, lasagna, veal parmigiana, eggplant and most of the other standard dishes people associate with home-style Italian. Even though the menu chooses to use the words “red sauce” instead of “red gravy,” Venezia isn’t fooling anybody with the possible exception of themselves. This is still a red gravy joint, the kind of neighborhood place where people bring mama, nonna and all the bambinos.

While the standard Italian fare is extremely good, albeit not terribly challenging, the pizza (pie) is outstanding. It comes in one size, fourteen inches cut into eight slices, and if you want something else, go somewhere else. The ingredients are what you’d expect, and the gimmick ingredient on the house special is a sprinkling of artichoke hearts.

When you order a pizza, don’t be surprised if your server isn’t terribly enthusiastic. The pizzas are prepped and cooked to order, a process that takes more time than the traditional Italian fare, and the longer the time a family spends at the table, the less often the table turns over, meaning the less money the server makes.

While the staff at Venezia will never utter the first disapproving word to a table of people who choose to linger or dawdle, don’t be surprised if you get the feeling they’d be just as happy if your were on your merry way. The truth is, they would be. A good slogan for the place, or at least an accurate one, might be: Come, order, eat, enjoy, pay, scram. It’s nothing personal, just business.

What ultimately makes Venezia worth a visit, more than its food or service or the room itself is its sheer authenticity. But be warned. The working class ambience will be charming to some, anathema to others. If you expect to be treated like visiting royalty in a restaurant, go somewhere else. If you’re willing to be treated like family, come on in.

You’ll soon come to realize that blue collar and red gravy are a couple of New Orleans’ most flavorful colors.

Venezia, 134 N. Carrolton Avenue (at Canal Street)

Open Wednesday – Friday, 11 a.m. –10 p.m.

Saturday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday, 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Reservations and all major credit cards accepted.

Telephone: 504- 488-7991

Website: www.venezianeworleans.com

Sunday, August 8, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Pascal's Manale

Pascal’s Manale

Considering that the provenance of New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp was a comedy of errors, it should come as no surprise that no one could agree upon the best way to cook it, either.

The name is misleading, the history appears to keep revising itself, no one seems to agree on how the dish is prepared and the most commonly asked question is, “What’s a Manale, anyway?”

Generally regarded as one of the iconic dishes in the entire New Orleans Creole-Italian repertoire, Barbecue Shrimp has absolutely nothing to do with barbecue in the way you probably know it. There’s no hickory or mesquite, the sauce isn’t tomato based and sweetened with either brown sugar or molasses, and people in Kansas City and Memphis (and Texas and the Carolinas) don’t argue about whose is best.

This much is known, or at least widely accepted, or maybe suspected:

New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp came into being sometime during the mid-1950s in the kitchen of an Italian family restaurant named Pascal’s Manale. Opened in 1913 by one Frank Manale, the Napoleon Avenue restaurant eventually found its way into the hands of Manale’s nephew, Pascal Radosta, who decided to rename the place after both of them.

Legend has it that on that fateful evening in the 50s, one of the regular customers named Vincent Sutro had just returned from a business trip to Chicago and started singing the praises of a dish he’d eaten there that, as far as he could remember, had shrimp, butter and a lot of pepper in it. He asked Pascal’s chef, Jake Radosta, if he could make some, and the chef said he could try.

Chef Radosta went into the kitchen, cooked up something that was as close as he could get to the fellow’s vague description and waited while the man tasted it. After a taste or two, the man said it wasn’t what he’d eaten in Chicago. It was better.

Owner Radosta decided to put it on the menu, where it’s stayed ever since. No one knows where the name came from. One guess was that this all happened at the point in time when the suburban backyard barbecuing craze was at its zenith and, despite being a misnomer, the name was coined to cash in on the fad. Whether that’s true or not, there is a delicious irony about a misrepresented recipe being given a misleading name and still becoming a New Orleans classic.

Considering that the provenance of New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp was a comedy of errors, it should come as no surprise that no one could agree upon the best way to cook it, either.
There are two leading schools of thought on the dish’s preparation and the advocates of each are pompously cocksure that they are correct. The first is that all the ingredients are mixed in a baking dish and put in the oven, and it would not surprise me to learn that this is how the dish was originally prepared in the kitchen at Pascal’s Manale. The alternative belief is that the whole process is accomplished in a cast iron skillet.

I have a sneaking hunch both factions are correct, based upon an item I read several years ago that claimed the dish’s widespread popularity actually occurred when it was reworked by Paul Prudhomme at his newly opened K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen.

Prudhomme is a notoriously fast chef well known for cooking with blazing heat at high speeds, and it seems logical that the creator of blackened redfish would rethink a time-honored recipe for ease and speed of preparation in a commercial kitchen.

In writing this, I wanted to be as accurate as possible, so I went to the Internet to do a comprehensive recipe search. There are dozens of them, including numerous ones claiming to be the original recipe, and these “authentic” guidelines cite both cooking techniques. Well, of course they do. All things considered, it wouldn’t be real barbecue shrimp if people could actually agree on its preparation.

But no matter which method of preparation is used, the results are so similar it takes a true culinary wizard to tell which method was employed. The four driving, traditional flavors are fresh Louisiana shrimp, an exceedingly generous amount of pepper, garlic and enough butter to make a cardiologist scream uncle. Varying recipes call for shrimp stock, Worcestershire, Italian herbs, mint sprigs, Tabasco, white wine, cream and even tomatoes. It is a remarkably flexible dish that readily accommodates any number of personal touches.

There is some disagreement (of course there is) of whether the Louisiana shrimp should be cooked beheaded, peeled and deveined or intact so the fat contained in the shrimp heads can be incorporated into the sauce.

Essential to any preparation is an abundance of crusty French bread to sop up the peppery butter sauce.

When you order barbecue shrimp at Pascal’s Manale, a bib is de rigueur. Peeling the shrimp is part of the process, and before the empty plate is taken away, your fingers will be butter-soaked, and possibly wet from licking them providing no one is looking. Of course you’ll look silly; every adult in a bib looks silly, so get over it. One of the latter meals my late father and I had together was at Pascal’s Manale, and all these years later, I treasure the memory of our laughing and pointing at each other in our stupid bibs.

Despite the restaurant’s age and success, it still retains the aura of a neighborhood, family place. Located on a corner in a shaded, residential area, Pascal’s is set in an unobtrusive building on Dryades Street, which also features an old-line steak house named Charlie’s, and an unusual structure originally built by the Mexican consulate that now is home to the city’s most discreet bed-and-breakfast, complete with clothing optional swimming pool.

From the street, you enter a large, wood-paneled waiting room that also houses the restaurant’s cocktail area and oyster bar. It’s a friendly, lively area, which is good because some people spend a considerable amount of time there. Like many New Orleans neighborhood places, Pascal’s has an unwritten policy of moving guests, even those with reservations, down the line when an old friend or regular decides to drop in – and with nearly a century under its belt, the restaurant has an impressive number of friends. While the waits are usually not inordinately long, a little patience is recommended, as are a cocktail and a dozen of the city’s better oysters.

There are two medium-sized dining rooms in the place, the motif of one leaning toward sports, and the other seemingly planned to be a “nice” family place, but somehow it ended up looking like the parlor in a cathouse.

Beyond the barbecue shrimp, the menu doesn’t stray far from the predictable -- some veal dishes, a couple of steaks, seafood grilled or fried. While the shrimp is certainly the headliner at Pascal’s, the other dishes are treated like anything other than afterthoughts. It’s a good kitchen, the kind anyone has the right to expect of a place that’s had nearly a century to work out the kinks.

While the dinnertime mood at Pascal’s is jovial, the bibs ludicrous, and the food quality hovering somewhere between very good and excellent, lunch at the restaurant offers one of the city’s exceptional bargains. A small loaf of French bread is hollowed out, filled with barbecue shrimp swimming in its peppery butter and served as a sandwich. While bibs are recommended, I’ve managed the sandwiches with a number of napkins and minimal wardrobe damage.

Summarizing Pascal’s Manale is a challenge, at least for me. The food is very, very good, but I can tick off a dozen places that offer better cooking without breaking a sweat. There’s a reason for that, and it afflicts several of the city’s more legendary kitchens. For more than fifty years, Pascal’s has been able to claim itself the originator of New Orleans barbecue shrimp, but with that title comes a tacit obligation not to vary one iota from the recipe as originally developed. In the meantime, innovative chefs have enjoyed an open field in which to tinker and tweak with the dish, and this has doubtlessly led to some improvements on the original.

Such a fate is not new; it has befallen such venerable culinary institutions as Oysters Rockefeller and soufflé potatoes at Antoine’s, the muffuletta as created by Central Grocery Company, the charbroiled oysters developed at Drago’s and many others. It begs the question, at what point does a dish as originally developed become a museum piece, a culinary curiosity overshadowed by the creation of a chef enjoying the freedom to explore and innovate? The truth is, there’s often a very real difference between a dish that’s been invented and one that’s been perfected, but they are both of interest to the dedicated “foodie.”

For whichever reason you’d consider a visit to Pascal’s Manale, historical or hedonistic, chances are you won’t be disappointed.

Pascal’s Manale, 1838 Napoleon Avenue (at Dryades St.)

Lunch served Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Dinner served Monday through Saturday 5 p.m. until closing

Dark Sunday

All major credit cards honored

Reservations strongly recommended,

but not accepted for 5 or more at 7:30 or 8 p.m.

Telephone: 504-895-4877

Website: www.neworleansrestaurants.com/pascalsmanale