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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, 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

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