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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

Friday, April 30, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Mandina's Restaurant

The idea of opening a restaurant was the furthest thing from Sebastian Mandina’s mind.

It was 1898, the threshold of a new, twentieth century, and Mandina had emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to New Orleans in order to open a corner grocery in the growing Mid-City area. With his family settled in upstairs, he opened his store and started chipping off his piece of the American Dream.

Over time, the grocery evolved into a pool hall that sold sandwiches and the business was handed down to the two sons who continued to live above the store. By 1932, the Great Depression had arrived and Frank and Anthony Mandina decided their financial future would be more secure if it depended upon serving full meals to families instead of sandwiches to shooters and sharks. It was an idea that made sense for the times.

It still makes perfect sense today, as evidenced by the lines waiting for tables in the same building on the corner of Canal and Cortez Streets, where the same family (albeit several generations downstream) dishes out their now time-honored Creole-Italian brand of New Orleans home cooking.

Mandina’s has been self-described as “the quintessential New Orleans neighborhood restaurant,” and few would disagree. With its pedigree including a groceria and a poolroom, Mandina’s makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is: namely, a place that has continually evolved into what New Orleanians want it to be instead of a high-flying innovator hoping the city may follow its lead.

Beyond a modicum of kitchen modernizing and gussying up the bar and dining rooms after Hurricane Katrina poured three feet of water in the door, little has changed. The food is the same, the atmosphere is equally comfortable and the family went out of its way to make sure the faces throughout the operation were the same.

Walking into Mandina’s for the first or fiftieth time is an exercise in sudden comfort. The room and the bar area are nice enough, yet pleasantly informal. Large windows look through neon onto one of the quieter stretches of Canal Street, where red streetcars rumble by on a regular basis. Framed JazzFest posters adorn the walls, occasionally interspersed with old photographs. There are no booths, only tables and chairs. With its high ceilings, the room levels ambient noise into an even, yet lively buzz.

The room is a natural showcase of democracy having dinner. It is not uncommon to see a table of businessmen having a martini before lunch next a table of blue-jeaned inhabitants from the surrounding neighborhoods to three generations of a family celebrating Grandma’s birthday to a couple on a first date. The amount of people watching seems minimal, most people appearing absorbed in negotiating their way through very generous plates of food.

At some point in time, someone must have walked out of Mandina’s looking for more food – perhaps a sumo wrestler or a lumberjack coming off a three-day fast. For mere mortals, however, most portions of most items are large enough to share, and the rest are even bigger.

Consider starting with the onion rings. An “appetizer” portion is served on a platter that will easily feed four as a starter (and a “side” of French fries is even larger). The rings themselves show years of patron pleasing experience in the kitchen; they’re thin enough not to be daunting, but not so thin that they droop or break the moment they’re picked up. On a recent visit, our server was kind enough to ask Mrs. McH and me if we’d like a half order, something that doesn’t appear on the menu or we even knew existed. “No, go ahead and give us a regular order,” we said. Foolishly.

I used to believe I always ordered Mandina’s homemade turtle soup au sherry as a matter of habit, until I realized it had actually become a ritual. Watch the soup arrive at the table. Wait for the server to ask if I’d like a little more sherry and wait for the bottle to be instantly produced. Say “please.” Smile as the server adds somewhere between a dash or a dollop to give it some wallop. Dig in, knowing all is right in the world for the next few minutes, anyway.

Over the years, turtle soup has changed, much like New Orleans itself. Originally made from sea turtles weighing up to 1,000 pounds, ecological and conservation considerations have caused many turtle soup to use smaller, freshwater specimens, which many people believe has a gamier, brackish taste. This flavor is sometimes smoothed out through the addition or substitution of other meats, normally veal or pork, in the soup’s preparation. In some instances, the substitution is terrapin, a smaller, East Coast turtle with a taste some epicures proclaim superior.

Turtle soup is a polarizing dish. It seems that no one greets it with indifference; they love it or loathe it. The soup appears on numerous menus throughout the city, but New Orleans partisans will almost always include Mandina’s and one of the Brennan family outposts (usually Mr. B’s Bistro, Commander’s Palace or their eponymous French Quarter flagship) among their top two or three favorites. For city visitors unfamiliar with classic Crescent City preparations of turtle soup, Mandina’s is a very good place to get a first taste.

For a city of big, wide ranging appetites, Mandina’s menu has expanded to fit them all. Steaks, chops, chicken, seafood, soups, salads, and sides join a variety of Italian, daily and house specials along with a list of burgers, a muffaletta and po’boys that harken back to the restaurant’s earlier life as a pool hall.

While such a wide selection can be confusing, even intimidating, the real heart of Mandina’s menu is to be found in its House Specials section, a half dozen seafood entrees that are the foundation of the restaurant’s venerable popularity. Among them are speckled trout, fresh catfish from legendary Bayou Des Allemands and seasonal soft shell crabs, all prepared in the classically simple New Orleans Meuniere or Almandine styles. But if there is one special that truly blends the city’s Creole and Italian culinary cultures, it’s the Gilled Shrimp over Pasta Bordelaise.

“Bordelaise” New Orleans style should not be confused with the Bordeaux district in France or the rich white or brown sauces laden with shallots and herbs that bear the same name. In New Orleans, Bordelaise can be translated to “garlic, butter, garlic, leaf parsley, garlic, occasional thyme and, oh yes, garlic.” The dish is the essence of simplicity itself. Plump, fresh Louisiana shrimp grilled before being dumped atop a mountain of pasta drenched in this buttery, garlicky sauce. The portion size is enormous to the point Mrs. McH and I normally split an order and still leave some on the platter. In the dish’s sheer simplicity, every flavor comes through in an inspired blend. Yes, there’s enough garlic that you’ll want to take a roll of breath mints. Hell, you might think of taking two, but this is old style New Orleans Italian cooking at its best and most generous.

Mandina’s is anything but tony, hip or au courant. It’s a working class family restaurant that’s been catering to local tastes instead of creating them for three quarters of a century. And boy, does it work.

One final note: Unless you show up a few minutes before the doors open or prefer to dine in the middle of the afternoon, you should expect a wait for a table, particularly on weekends. Reservations aren’t accepted for parties of less than fifteen, and credit cards aren’t accepted at all. Should you find this way of doing business particularly old-fashioned, you may want to tell a member of the family. He or she will no doubt thank you for it.

Mandina’s Restaurant, 3800 Canal St (at South Cortez)
Open Seven Days a Week: Monday - Thursday 11:00 a.m.- 9:30 p.m.,
Friday & Saturday 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m., Sunday Noon – 9:00 p.m.
Cash only, no credit cards or reservations for less than 15 accepted.

Telephone: (504) 482-9179, Website: www.mandinasrestaurant.com

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Casamento's

The difference between two of New Orleans’ most venerated and revered oyster bars can be summarized in one simple sentence:

Casamento’s is for purists, and the Acme is for tourists.

While such a statement may seem pejorative at face value, it is not a knock on the food served at either establishment, since most New Orleanians would put both places in the city’s top five classic oyster bars.

The differences between the two are to be found in the addresses and attitudes toward change. The Acme is located in the tourist end of the upper French Quarter, between Bourbon and Royal Streets, while Casamento’s can be found near the corner of Napoleon and Magazine in a more genteel residential and shopping district.

In the last fifteen years, Acme has opened four new satellite locations, including one in Destin (Florida), while Casamento’s has stayed in the twenty-foot wide storefront where they opened their doors in 1919.

When sushi was all the rage in the early 1990s, Acme tossed some scallions and wasabi on their raw oysters and touted them as “Cajun Sushi.” When another New Orleans restaurant, Drago’s, developed the charbroiled oysters that took the city by storm, “chargrilled oysters” quickly appeared on the Acme menu. By contrast, Casamento’s has stuck with the oyster basics – on the half shell, fried and oyster stew – and watched the fads pass by their doorstep.

Whether Casamento’s dogged resistance to change has been created by over 90 years of success or plain old hardheadedness on the part of the owners is difficult to say, but the bottom line is, it works well for them.

On the history page of the restaurant’s website is a photograph of the restaurant’s front room taken in 1919. With the exception of the tiles on the counter front, a few different pictures and some updated equipment, it is nearly identical to the view you get when you first walk in the door. That sameness extends into the second dining room behind as well.

While there’s no way of knowing if Italian immigrant Joe Casamento could envision a ninety year run for his restaurant, one of his key early decisions has made it possible for the place to make very few changes as the decades have danced by. Following restaurant traditions of his native Italy, Casamento had tiles installed on all floors and walls to make the restaurant easy to clean. In fact, so many tiles were ordered for the restaurant’s initial installation that it took four separate tile companies from across the United States to fulfill the order.

This same order of tile still covers the floor and lower ten feet of walls today, and the place remains spotless. Original tile also surrounds the twin picture windows, front door and transoms, giving Casamento’s storefront façade its frozen-in-time quality.

While such timeless visual elements enhance both Casamento’s aesthetics and charm, it’s not the architecture or décor that’s served on the plate. It’s the food in general and the oysters in particular.

Should you arrive for an early lunch before the doors open at eleven, the chances are fairly good that you’ll be met with the reassuring sight of men with burlap bags on their shoulders delivering the day’s freshly caught oysters. If you’re seated in the front room and take the opportunity to watch the speed and sure-handedness with which the shuckers work, you’ll realize that not only did you get to lunch before your lunch did, but the whole process happened in a number of minutes you can count on your fingers.

It is at this point where visitors from outside the Gulf of Mexico’s main oystering centers (running from Abbeville, Louisiana, to Apalachicola, Florida) come face to face with a conflict raging between coastal seafood harvesters and overreaching federal bureaucrats hell-bent on creating a “nanny state.” At the center of the controversy is if and to what degree eating raw oysters can be potentially dangerous to human health.

For nearly twenty years, a disclaimer has appeared on menus in most oyster bars warning of health hazards associated with eating raw shellfish. The reason for the somewhat disconcerting warning is Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that naturally occurs in some oysters. While nothing in this essay should be construed as a professional medical opinion (yes, we writers have to put down disclaimers, too), a combination of facts, history and common sense suggests that the vast majority of the populace have little to nothing to fear from consuming raw oysters.

The truth is, people with serious pre-existing health conditions, such as liver disease, cancer, diabetes, AIDS or other autoimmunity problems, account for virtually all illnesses and deaths (about fifteen per year) from raw oyster consumption. Actuarial figures suggest that a person is far more likely to die from a lightning strike that seafood consumption. Nonetheless, people with conditions putting them at risk are advised to only eat oysters that have been cooked, frozen or pasteurized – a recommendation that already appears on many oyster bar menus. (In fact, Casamento’s menu contains: “Warning: There may be a risk associated with consuming raw shellfish as is the case with other raw protein products. If you suffer from chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood, or have other immune disorders, you should eat these products fully cooked.”

Despite the odds against any harm from eating raw oysters, in the fall of 2009, the United States Food & Drug Administration issued a plan to prohibit the sale of raw Gulf Coast oysters for six or more months per year, starting in 2011. At this writing, the proposed ban is being fought by the coastal seafood and oyster industries, which stand to lose thousands of jobs should the proposal be enacted.

That said, the oysters on the half shell at Casamento’s are magnificent. A typical dozen will usually contain both smaller oysters with their intense flavor and some so large you’ll suspect that if they ever produced pearls, they’d be large enough to play golf with.

Fried oysters and shrimp are available as dinners or as “boats,” which are not traditional New Orleans po’boys, but overflowing sandwiches made with the equivalent of Texas toast. Catfish, trout and seasonal soft-shell crabs are also available in both configurations.

The pocket-sized kitchen also produces chicken tenders, spaghetti and meatballs and a seafood combo platter, while a gumbo pot simmers and their overworked fryers produce a steady stream of crab claw and calamari plates.

While there are any number of places to grab a great dozen or two on the half shell in New Orleans, there is an old-fashioned, turn-back-the-clock quality about Casamento’s that separates it from the pack. Perhaps the restaurant being closed every June, July and August best illustrates this.

Years ago, oysters were traditionally served in months with an “R” in their spellings. While it’s true that summer months are not the best for mollusk harvesting, improved oystering techniques have made the “R” rule more of a myth than anything else. That doesn’t mean you won’t see some sort of plaque reading, “Oysters ‘R’ in Season” in oyster bars all across America, although I’ve never noticed one in Casamento’s.

Even though the restaurant stays open through the “R-less” month of May, there remains a charm to its contrarian adherence to myth. And it’s that devotion to times past which makes Casamento’s the Crescent City’s quintessential oyster house, at least for purists.


Casamento's Restaurant, 4330 Magazine St. (at Napoleon)
Open Tuesday - Saturday from 11:00 am - 2:00 pm.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday Evenings from 5:30 pm - 9:00 pm

Closed June, July and August and all Major Holidays

Casamento’s accepts cash only and no reservations.

Telephone: 504-895-9761

Website: www. casamentosrestaurant.com

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Brigtsen's

Perhaps it’s a reflection of our society’s obsession with the concept of celebrity, or maybe it’s the number of media outlets that need to keep their fires stoked around the clock, but the true currency of celebrity has been devalued by the increasing number of people who find themselves so pronounced by a fickle public and the breathless media that panders to them.

It’s only natural that in a city like New Orleans, where food outstrips even the weather as the leading topic of discussion, chefs would have more cachet than they do in most other places. And while it can be readily argued that New Orleans has far more than its fair share of world-class chefs, the lists of celebrity chefs have become ridiculously long.

These days, lists of New Orleans celebrity chefs usually have at least eight people on them and I’ve seen rosters that include as many as twenty. In an effort to stabilize the hyperbolized currency, I took out a legal pad and a No. 2 Dixon pencil and tried to come up with a list of local chefs deserving to be considered as bona fide celebrities.

I came up with four and a half names, the half being ubiquitous Emeril Lagasse, and the other four being Paul Prudhomme, Susan Spicer, Frank Brigtsen and John Besh.

Lagasse loses his half point because his far flung empire of more than a dozen restaurants across the country, his unrelenting television appearances and his corporate assimilation into the Martha Stewart conglomerate have made him more of a visiting jet-setter than a genuine resident.

Besh continues to hang on to his full star, despite his growing number of restaurants and increasing television gigs. As of this writing, Besh only has his fingers in five restaurants, the furthest away of which is the charming La Provence across Lake Pontchartrain in Lacombe (Louisiana), hardly cause for having a private jet.

Spicer also flirted with over-expansion several times, but a successful cookbook (Crescent City Cooking), happiness in her somewhat recent marriage and the continued runaway demand for “New World Cuisine” at her Creole cottage restaurant, Bayona, keep her securely harbored in New Orleans.

While Paul Prudhomme, generally credited as the creator and champion of hybrid Louisiana cuisine, turned the day-to-day operation of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen over to executive chef Paul Miller years ago, he remains active in recipe development as well as a high profile ambassador for post-Katrina New Orleans and indigenous regional ingredients and cuisine.

This brings us to Frank Brigtsen, probably the least known of the celebrity chefs mentioned, due mostly to the fact that he spends the vast majority of his time in the kitchen, doing what a chef should be doing, namely, cooking original food and writing down the recipes.

Brigtsen’s credentials aren’t flashy. A local New Orleans lad, he grew up eating Creole cooking and kicking around city kitchens until he was 24, when he went to work as an apprentice for Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace in the middle 1970s. He followed Prudhomme and his late wife when they opened K-Paul’s, and became the first Night Chef when the restaurant started serving dinner.

Prudhomme, a Cajun from Opelousas, is best known for creating blackened redfish and integrating Cajun ingredients into the more urbane Creole cooking then prevalent in New Orleans. This put Brigtsen at the epicenter of the birth of the hybrid style Prudhomme referred to as “Louisiana cuisine,” and this period of time would have a profound influence on the up and coming chef.

In 1986, with the help of a loan from his mentor Prudhomme, the energetic Frank and his wife, Marna, opened Brigtsen’s in a shotgun Creole cottage in the Riverbend section of Uptown New Orleans. Located on a quiet side street away from the city’s major convention and tourism centers, the restaurant soon became a bustling local “find” and today remains a busy restaurant with a strong in-town following.

The restaurant has remained small in size, the front of the house (literally) confined in three adjoining rooms with an adjacent shotgun hall alongside. The hall is narrow and tables pack the dining rooms, leaving little room for servers to make their way through the restaurant. With a most gracious staff, one gets the feeling of being at a lively dinner party in a home not spacious enough to fully accommodate it. This in and of itself is not an unpleasant situation by any means; rather, it gives the restaurant an intimate “clubby” feeling – that of a friendly local place serving inspired food instead of a starchy “temple of cuisine.”

While saying that any one restaurant puts out the best plates of food in New Orleans is an invitation to argument, it isn’t difficult to make the case that the best food using local ingredients and techniques is coming out of Frank Brigtsen’s kitchen. It is “Next Step Louisiana Cuisine,” its Cajun and Creole heritages unmistakable, but without the preciousness or over-the-top eccentricities of nouvelle cuisine’s outer reaches.

Main courses are straightforward with restrained flourishes. Consider, if you will, a broiled gulf fish with a crabmeat Parmesan crust, mushrooms and a lemon Mousselline sauce. There’s a pan-roasted pork tenderloin with sweet potato dirty rice and pork debris or a panéed rabbit with a sesame crust, spinach and Creole mustard sauce. It is cooking with complimentary regional flavors instead of exotic ingredients selected for contrast. It is home cooking as high art.

While Brigtsen changes his menu with the seasons, his seafood platter, by far the restaurant’s most frequently ordered entrée, appears year ‘round. It is a sampler of six items: grilled drum with crawfish and jalapeño lime sauce; shrimp cornbread with jalapeño smoked corn butter; baked oyster LeRuth with shrimp and crabmeat; baked oyster with fennel, jalapeño shrimp cole slaw, and panéed sea scallop with asparagus purée.

The same virtuosity is reflected in the appetizer menu, which regularly offers as many as a dozen choices from such traditional items as a filet gumbo with rabbit and andouille sausage or a shortcake made of crawfish etoufée with a basil black pepper biscuit to more adventurous offerings such as oysters and artichoke au gratin or sautéed veal sweetbreads with potato leek cake, mushrooms, capers and lemon roasted garlic butter.

Not too long ago, Mrs. McH and I were contemplating pushing back from our table and waddling down the narrow corridor when our server sweet-talked us into splitting a piece of Brigtsen’s homemade pecan pie, which had been cited on the Food Network TV program The Best Thing I Ever Ate, by none less than Southern cuisine author/connoisseur John T. Edge. While I’m not ready to wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Edge’s glittering evaluation, it was one superb piece of pie and the empty plate looked terribly sad.

Brigtsen’s has now been in business well over twenty years, quite a long time in the restaurant industry, but seemingly the mere blink of an eye in a city where one family has been running a restaurant for 170 years. Yet in these times, when celebrities are ground of the media machine like so much sausage, there’s something refreshing about a man who has quietly built his reputation in his kitchen instead of through chasing press and ceaseless self-promotion.

In a quarter century, Brigtsen has done a mere handful of TV appearances compared to many others in the business, and his empire building seems limited to acquiring Charlie’s Sea Foods, a family seafood place out on industrial Jefferson Highway. If he keeps doing what he’s doing at the level he’s doing it, one of these years, Frank Brigtsen is destined to become an overnight success.


Brigtsen’s, 723 Dante Street (next to River Road)
Open 5:30 until 10 p.m. for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, dark Sunday and Monday.
Reservations strongly encouraged. All major credit cards accepted.
Telephone: (504) 861-7691
Website: www.brigtsens.com

Thursday, April 15, 2010

New Orleans Dining: The Ruby Slipper Cafe

To the visitor, New Orleans is often bewildering. North, south, east and west are irrelevant terms in a city where directions use the terms lakeside, riverside, uptown and downtown. It’s not uncommon to see a showplace of a house sitting next to a shack or a gated compound next to a corner grocery that’s seen its better days.

Things are different here. Outside a few streets like extremely pricey Audubon Place, there are few strong boundaries separating the blessed and the less fortunate. Because of the polarity of wealth and poverty in New Orleans, it becomes difficult not only to identify the city’s middle class but also to pinpoint where they live. (It’s little wonder the word “gumbo” is often used when describing the city’s mixed population.)

The neighborhood centered at the corners of Canal Street and Carrolton fits the designation of “middle class” about as well as any in the city proper. Roughly four miles from the French Quarter and CBD by automobile or, better yet, the scarlet streetcars of the Canal Street line, the area is mainly residential once you venture off the main drags. It’s a surprisingly stable neighborhood with a pronounced Italian influence, and has been home to some of the city’s more revered local eateries for years.

Notable among these are Mandina’s, a Creole-Italian place often described as the city’s quintessential neighborhood restaurant; Liuzza’s, a side street café dating back to 1947 that also dishes up Creole-Italian, and serves monstrous frozen schooners of “the coldest beer in town” as a washdown; Venezia, a red gravy (tomato sauce) trattoria where the odds are that you will be the only non-local non-Sicilian in the place; and Angelo Brocato, a gelati emporium that moved to its Carrolton location when the lower French Quarter started fading as the epicenter of the city’s Italian community.

At the corner of two quiet side streets (South Cortez and Cleveland Avenue) one block behind Mandina’s is a relative newcomer, a breakfast, brunch and lunch café that radiates the easy vibe of New Orleans on a sun-dappled morning. The Ruby Slipper is a place that, even though it’s only a few years old, feels like it’s been standing on its street corner forever. The building’s deep-red paint job is testament to a major post-Katrina renovation/restoration but that aside, it looks like a place that’s been there for as long as there’s been a neighborhood.

The two yellow rooms that wrap around a central service bar are small and cheerful, with the kind of Mom-and-Pop ambience that makes people want to linger over another cup of coffee and section of The Times-Picayune, particularly on weekday mornings when The Ruby Slipper isn’t slammed with brunchers.

Should you find yourself undaunted by the prospect of an upcoming business meeting, an 8 a.m. eye opener can be a wink-and-nod wicked way to roll into a day of getting acquainted with one of America’s most laidback cities. The pleasant staff will be more than happy to pour a slug of Irish cream liqueur into your coffee, make you a Bloody Mary with their own house mixer, or put together a breakfast drink that’s almost as indigenous to New Orleans as the legendary Sazerac -- Brandy Milk Punch, a velvety cocktail accented with whispers of nutmeg and vanilla.

From its earliest days as a port city, New Orleans has been a major center for roasting and grinding the coffees of Central and South America. Long before coffee once again became stylish thanks to Seinfeld and Starbucks, New Orleans had (and still has) a healthy number of companies producing coffee that meets Fair Trade Certification specifications. These are the sources for The Ruby Slipper’s bottomless cups or regular coffee, and Italian coffees are used for the café’s espresso-based offerings.

The Ruby Slipper serves a fairly standard, predictable lunch of soups, salads, sandwiches and burgers, some with enough of a house twist (guacamole on the club, grilled tomato and provolone served on a brioche) to nudge them out of the norm. But the café’s real headliners are breakfast and brunch.

Breakfast is a knockout. It can be anywhere from as exotic as Portobello mushrooms and Brie with fresh thyme (the European) or blackboard special crème brulee pancakes served with smoked applewood bacon to a basic plate of ham and eggs.

Two of the standard breakfast menu items deserve special mention because of their New Orleans provenance. While devotees of the South Carolina Low County may want to quibble over origins, Shrimp and Grits have been served together in Louisiana for as long as there have been coastal Gulf shrimp and corn meal. The Ruby Slipper version of this venerable Southern offering has been jazzed up with the addition of (locally-brewed) Abita Amber Barbecue Sauce to the shrimp preparation, which bring a welcome depth and richness to a dish that can be bland in less capable hands.

The other noteworthy breakfast entrée is Bananas Foster Pain Perdu. For some reason, pain perdu (French for “lost bread”) is still the New Orleans term for what the rest of the nation calls French toast. Charming linguistic peculiarities aside, the Ruby Slipper version consists of an enormous portion of French toast covered with applewood bacon and banana slices, then slathered in Bananas Foster sauce, a buttery brown sugar and rum-based concoction first developed as a flambéed dessert at Brennan’s in the French Quarter. It is decadently sweet, caloric enough to put a dietician into a dead faint and easily enough food for two.

The Ruby Slipper ramps up their breakfast offerings for weekend brunch. Like many places across the city, the restaurant has a half dozen variations of Eggs Benedict (which oddly enough doesn’t appear on the menu). One of these, which they developed in their kitchen is Eggs Creole, which consists of a bed of boudin rice over a pool of traditional Creole sauce, eggs poached in peppery liquid crab boil and finished with a traditional Hollandaise. Another variation is Ruby’s Crabcake, more or less traditional Eggs Benedict, but with the Canadian bacon being replaced by Louisiana crabmeat in season.

Perhaps the least traditional entrée is “Duck ‘n’ Cover,” which features duck debris (chunks of meat slow-roasted in gravy) on top of a bed of sweet potatoes with a woodland sauce. Eggs are served on the side, as are grits or potatoes and toast or biscuit.

The couple behind the Ruby Slipper has done a masterful job of integrating classic elements of New Orleans and Louisiana cuisine into standard American breakfast and lunch fare. They have thus far successfully resisted the temptation to overdo their additions and variations, thereby avoiding the traps that ensnare overly self-conscious chefs whose food is all too often too clever by half. The food is slightly “yuppified” without becoming over-reachingly obnoxious, and if the kitchen sticks to these principles, it could once again make the word “creative” a compliment instead of a curse.

Sitting with a morning paper and a Bloody Mary, one doesn’t get the idea that The Ruby Slipper was opened with any grander intention than putting out a good plate of chow in a neighborhood café. If that is indeed the case, it is an out-and-out success. While it may not be near any of the traditional visitor sights, The Ruby Slipper will give the adventurous traveler a true taste of New Orleans in terms of both vittles and vibe.

The Ruby Slipper, 139 South Cortez Street (corner of Cleveland Avenue).

Lunch, brunch and dinner 7 a.m. through 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Friday, Weekends until 3 p.m., dark on Monday. No reservations. All major credit cards welcome. Telephone: 504 - 309 – 5531

Website: www.therubyslippercafe.net

New Orleans Dining: Cafe Reconcile

Perhaps I have a chunk of anthracite where most people have a heart, but experience has taught me to be wary of food for worthy causes.

Throughout my childhood, I was subjected to countless pancake breakfasts and spaghetti suppers in support of Methodist church projects. Countless chicken or chili-for-charity events have punctuated my adulthood. Heaven only knows how many fundraising appeals I’ve snoozed through with a bellyful of barbecue or fried catfish.

Because I came to associate the term “good cause” with “bad food,” I went out of my way to avoid trying Café Reconcile, a lunchroom-cum-social project in the dicey Central City section of New Orleans. In the case of Café Reconcile, such judgment proved hasty. That is not to say that the scales were ripped from my eyes and a feast-laden table awaited me.

The food was workmanlike, filling and good, certainly better than expected. What makes the place irresistible is the story behind it.

It’s no secret that New Orleans is a city riddled with pockets of grinding poverty and plenty of mean streets. While it’s arguable where the Central City neighborhood might be ranked in a list that includes Gentilly, Tremé and the Lower Ninth Ward, it’s still an area where out-of-towners unfamiliar with the city might exercise caution during the day, avoid after dark and stay the hell out of after midnight.

The economic and social plights of these hardscrabble neighborhoods came under the national media spotlight in the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and while some of them are experiencing varying degrees of renaissance, these areas remain breeding grounds for at-risk youth, much as they have been for decades.

In 1996, two concerned community members, Tim Falcon and Craig Cuccia, started to discuss ways to address the poverty, violence and crime that beleaguered Central City’s school dropouts. Like most people in cities with large Catholic populations, the two knew that when you want to effect positive social change, call in a Jesuit priest to ramrod the project. This they did in the person of Father Harry Thompson, and together the three of them planted the seeds that would grow into Café Reconcile in the year 2000.

The centerpiece of their efforts and the foundation upon which Café Reconcile is built is Reconcile New Orleans’ Workforce Development Program, a comprehensive nine-week program through which at-risk, 16 to 22 year-olds learn the basic life, interpersonal and work skills that enable them to viably enter the foodservice workforce. To date, the program has well over 500 graduates working in the full spectrum of New Orleans’ restaurant, hospitality and industrial foodservice industries.

While lectures, demonstrations and traditional instruction are integral parts of the total curriculum, for Reconcile students, show time comes every Monday though Friday at 11 a.m., when the doors open and the place becomes a working café for the next three and a half hours.

Over the course of the nine-week program, students will work in five key positions (steward; floor service or wait staff; pantry chef; sous chef; and department chef) as the café feeds between 120 and 150 paying customers daily.

The restaurant’s menu is heavy on traditional New Orleans soul food because the ingredients are relatively inexpensive and the whole venture operates on a nonprofit basis. Equally important, however, is that this is the type of food that the student work force knows, which puts all the emphasis on learning new skills without the added challenges of learning unfamiliar cuisines as well.

The standing, five-day menu is heavy on chicken (baked dark or white and a fried breast) and also features a fried catfish or vegetable plate, all with a choice of ten sides. Po-boys, soups and salads round out the menu. Off-menu blackboard specials change daily depending upon what’s fresh, available and affordable.

Regular daily specials lean toward the traditional. Mondays are the obligatory red beans and rice. Wednesdays offer pot roast or shrimp etouffée. Thursday brings chicken three more ways and a special that is often mentioned in customer reviews found on the Internet – white beans and rice with shrimp. With its heavy white bean mash base, the dish looks remarkably similar to a thick potato soup or New England clam chowder when it arrives at the table, which I quite frankly found a little off-putting initially, but it was quite flavorsome even before I added a jolt of Tabasco.

Off-menu blackboard specials round out the menu.

One place where Café Reconcile’s kitchen seems to shine is dessert. Having heard about their Bananas Foster Bread Pudding, I doggedly ordered it, even though the day’s two other desserts seemed more tempting (a seasonal cobbler that was apricot and ginger that day, and a handsomely presented strawberry smoothie that was shown tableside). Expecting a brownish lump in a soup bowl, the café’s presentation was something much more likely to be found in a white tablecloth place than a basic culinary training school. Dressed with whipped cream, the swirled pudding was served on a plate festooned with a grid of chocolate and caramel ribbons and was an unexpectedly lovely way to finish a fairly straightforward lunch.

The most pleasant aspect of lunch at Café Reconcile is not the food; nor is it the working-class neighborhood ambience of the place. It’s the earnestness of the people who work there.

The crews who work the kitchen and the front of Café Reconcile are young men and women who grew up in the American underclass, with few prospects beyond the narcotics needle, a prison cell or the morgue. Many, if not most, dropped out of schools unable or unwilling to retrieve them from paths to failure. They come from homes not only broken but irreparable, where they had heard a lifetime of predictions of their inevitable fates of futility and come to believe them.

I don’t know how these young people are found or recruited or drafted or come to the new chances afforded them by the Reconcile New Orleans community of care. Perhaps they’ve been given a choice by a judge – Reconcile or jail, you decide. The point is that they get there, and watching them work with such untaught or forgotten concepts as responsibility, civility and essential humanity is a hope giving experience.

There is a self-consciousness to be found among the Reconcile crews. They seem reluctant to look up, let alone look you in the eye. Aware that their language skills stalled when they left school at an early age, they mumble. But damn it, these young men and women try, and they make you want to try to draw them out. The looks of surprise that come across their faces when people speak nicely to them are endearing. The smiles that come from a heartfelt thank you instead of one that’s perfunctory are priceless.

Café Reconcile is what can happen when kind people move into mean streets.

You can find far more elegant meals with more premium ingredients prepared by culinary virtuosi in dozens of places throughout New Orleans, but you’ll have to look long and hard to find one that’s any more satisfying. Thank heavens a warmhearted Jesuit remembered Luke 4:4.

Café Reconcile is located at 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City.

The restaurant is open Monday through Friday for lunch only from 11:00 until 2:30.

No reservations. All major credit cards honored.

Telephone (504) 568-1157