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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

Saturday, May 29, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Napoleon House

Taking a look around the main barroom in the front of the building, one easily gets the impression that changes have been few, if any, and that over the past century, the total expenditure on decorations might approach twenty bucks.

Napoleon House is more of a saloon than a restaurant, but more than that, it is perhaps the city’s ultimate exemplar of democracy in action.

It’s not uncommon to see local residents in business dress and tourists sporting flip-flops and fanny packs at adjacent tables blithely ignoring each other in a laissez faire environment that is more advertised than realized in “the city that care forgot.”

In truth, many New Orleans residents have conceded their beloved Vieux Carre (the French Quarter) to the masses who make tourism one of the city’s largest industries. Beyond an occasional foray to such bastions of the city’s old ways as Galatoire’s and Antoine’s, or a visit to see why people are buzzing about a new chef on the block, many locals have come to regard the Quarter as a place to bring company from out of town before returning to the relative equanimity of their own neighborhoods.

With the city’s carefully cultivated image as a hotbed of decadence, drunkenness and debauchery, it should not surprise anyone when the French Quarter becomes a magnet for visitors far from home intent on giving their repressed hometown behavior a test drive or, at the very least, watch others try their hands at the wheel. In fact, it can be convincingly argued that before Las Vegas unleashed its randy “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” advertising campaign, New Orleans was widely regarded as America’s “sin city.” Considering such a pedigree, it’s not difficult to see why local residents keep a wary eye on tourists; nor should it come as a surprise that their outings into the Quarter are commonly infrequent.

Yet in the heart of the packaged prurience of the French Quarter, a mere two blocks above Jackson Square on Chartres Street, is this oasis of civility, gentility and tranquility. And to many people, resident and visitor alike, there is no other place that typifies New Orleans as does the ramshackle bar that, were it in any other city, would be a likely candidate for the wrecking ball.

The 200 year-old building was originally the home of mayor Nicholas Girod, whose term in office (1812-1815) overlapped the historic Battle of New Orleans. A loyal Bonapartist, Girod offered his house as a home to Napoleon, who was in his second exile on the island of St. Helena, 1200 miles west of the African coast in the middle of the south Atlantic. Legend has it that Girod was trying to hatch a plot to spring Napoleon from captivity when “the little corporal” up and died, rendering the entire enterprise theoretical.

In 1914, the Impastato family opened their bar and restaurant in the building, where it has been in operation ever since. Taking a look around the main barroom in the front of the building, one easily gets the impression that changes have been few, if any, and that over the past century, the total expenditure on decorations might approach twenty bucks. The plaster and paint have nearly disappeared, often replaced by overlapping strata of graffiti. Paintings, posters and photographs go from fading to yellowing to thoroughly obscured by the thick brown patina arising from decades of heat, humidity and smoke.

French doors open off the St. Louis Street side of the barroom providing a view of one of the city’s most notorious slave exchanges, and on pleasant days, wobbly tables and rickety chairs inch their way through them to start forming an impromptu sidewalk café, where time slows and the temptation of one more final cocktail keeps the ringside seats from turning over at a Twenty-First Century clip. Mules pull carriages filled with tourists past the St. Louis Street tables and someone listening closely to the patter of the coachmen will learn a different history of the building over the rhythmic clopping of hooves with the passing of each coach.

In the midst of the city where jazz was cradled, American gospel planted its roots and a joyous Cajun zydeco beat pounds out the front of trinket shops, Napoleon House is a defiant anachronism. The music in the barroom is big boy classical – a thundering Beethoven symphony one minute, Pavarotti powering through a Puccini aria the next – and there is a fundamental rightness to the music that is undeniable. In nearly forty years, I’ve never heard anyone have the temerity to suggest switching it to rock, funk or (God forbid) country. It’s as if a cantankerous specter stands sentry in the room, ready to advise a musical philistine that there are several dozen other places in the Quarter that play the new stuff and the door is in the corner.

There is a smallish courtyard behind the barroom, a room to the side that once housed a bistro with a more ambitious menu than that of the saloon but has yet to reopen after Katrina, and there are also private event rooms in the 2300 square feet on the second floor that were once fit and fitted for an emperor. And while these areas are all very pleasant and New Orleans-esque in their own right, none of them bespeak the Crescent City as declaratively as the bar.

One thing missing from Napoleon House, but not really missed at all, is the ubiquitous display of photographs of people both famous and infamous who have frittered away an hour or a lazy afternoon going all the way back to the year Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo and the world plunged into war. While many places cover their walls with pictures of presidents and popes, silent stars of the silver screen or television’s talking heads, the lack of same at Napoleon House tacitly implies that this is an egalitarian saloon, one where the owners don’t give a damn who you are as long as you have enough money to buy a drink and the common sense to leave everyone else alone.

This streak of iconoclasm seems to permeate the wait staff, a polite yet slightly standoffish crew of men in white shirts and black bow ties. Waiters whose demeanors border on the dictatorial are more of a tradition than a novelty in New Orleans to be sure, but in a venerable old joint like Napoleon House, such behavior can be oddly reassuring instead of off-putting, although it can be slightly disconcerting for men of any age, including octogenarians, to be called “young man” by a proper but prissy waiter whose sexuality could easily be grounds for debate.

There is food at Napoleon House and it’s far better than anyone walking through the door for the first time might expect in such a timeworn establishment. Non-cognoscenti of New Orleans’ culinary traditions have no reason to know that the operators of Napoleon House are a branch of the Impastato family, which also operates a renowned eponymous restaurant in Metairie and Sal & Judy’s, a prominent Creole-Italian trattoria across Lake Pontchartrain in the Northshore village of Lacombe.

There are salads, the influences of which leans toward Italian, ten predictable po’boys and such predictable New Orleans standards as jambalaya, gumbo and red beans and rice. More unusual, at last for tavern food, are the appetizers: focaccia, bruschetta, a café charcuterie, an antipasto salad, hummus and a cheese board with six wedges of cheese, pepperoni slices, fresh fruit and bread. Yet there is something so atmospheric and continental, not to mention appropriate, about appetizers with a European flair being served in a century old New Orleans bar with corroding pictures on the walls and Il Trovatore on the turntable.

The centerpiece of the menu, however, is the warmed Italian Muffuletta, a colossal sandwich created with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, Swiss cheese, provolone and a garlicky housemade olive salad piled high on the split, round loaf of thickly crusted Italian bread from which the muffuletta derives its name. The consensus in New Orleans is that the muffuletta was originally conceived and built in 1906 at Central Grocery Co., an Italian market founded when lower Decatur Street was the heart of the dockside Italian community and which is still in business today.

In a city where the mere expression of a personal food preference can become the flashpoint for anything from a raised voice debate to occasional fisticuffs, an argument has raged for decades about the Central Grocery muffuletta’s superiority over the one served at Napoleon House and vice versa. The Central Grocery version is served at room temperature, which Napoleon House loyalists disparage as “passé,” while their version is heated to the point the cheeses melt, which the Central traditionalists decry as sacrilege. It is, of course, a good-natured argument that will never be won or lost but is destined to continue as long as there is meat, cheese, olive salad, bread and two New Orleanians to fight about it.

The specialty drink at Napoleon House is the Pimm’s Cup, actually invented in England in 1840 and more traditionally associated with Wimbledon and afternoon cricket matches, a cooling blend of Pimm’s No. 1 gin-based liqueur and three ounces of lemonade topped off with 7UP and garnished with cucumber. No one seems to know exactly how or when the Pimm’s Cup became the saloon’s liquid mascot, but in a place that takes yesteryear’s events at face value, no one really needs to. Some things are just the way they are, period.

In a few short years, Napoleon House will ease into its second century as a bar. If things stay the way they are, and if the past is prologue they will, not much if anything will change. There might be a small print ad and an extra article or two in The Times-Picayune, but beyond that, the Pimm’s Cup will continue to pour, the pictures will continue to age, and should a resident happen to make eye contact with a visitor there may even be a quick nod of recognition. But in a New Orleans that continues to change, who could possibly want Napoleon House to change along with it?

Raise your glass to democracy at its best. Hear, hear.


Napoleon House, 500 Chartres Street, (at St. Louis Street)

Monday 11 a.m. - 5:30 p.m; Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. -10 p.m;
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.

All major credit cards accepted, but no reservations

Telephone: (504) 524-9752, Website: www.napoleonhouse.com

Friday, May 21, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Clover Grill

It is tempting to say that the key to the Clover’s success is that everything is served with a side order of attitude, but that would be inaccurate because, really, attitude is the main course.

May you relish my what?

“May we relish your weenie?” There it was, right on the menu of the Clover Grill under the “Clover Weenie.” Even though the revised menu no longer carries that, uh, proposition, the high camp iconoclasm of the Clover remains in full flower 24/7.

An openly gay greasy spoon where burgers are grilled under hubcaps, eggs are scrambled in a milkshake blender and you expect the fry-boys to break into dance at the drop of a counterman’s paper cap, the Clover is the first café you’ll bump into on Bourbon Street once your cross New Orleans’ “Lavender Line.”

Even though the signs may read St. Ann Street, the so-called Lavender Line is the unofficial border separating the bustling commercial section of the French Quarter from its quieter, more residential area with its high concentration of gay residents. Within the lower quarter is a two square-block area known as “The Fruit Loop,” which is the self-described epicenter of the city’s gay nightlife, attractions and events.

The Clover Grill’s location on “the Loop” shares the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine with Café Lafitte in Exile, one of the oldest gay bars in the country. One block further down Bourbon Street is Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a picturesque pile of a tavern built circa 1772 and reputed to be the oldest continuously occupied saloon in the United States. Go another block and you’ll be at an all-night grocery named the QuarterMaster, but generally referred to locally as the “Nellie deli.” The bottom line is that the neighborhood is sure to make the hardest-bitten homophobe roughly as comfortable as a deacon in a cathouse.

Even though there is no question about the sexual identity of the Clover or a seeming majority of its patrons, most of the stereotypical vamping and camping is played for laughs instead of keeps. Just the same, it can be somewhat unnerving to the unsuspecting, sleepy-eyed visitor who wanders in for nothing more than breakfast when an elegantly made-up gentleman working the cash register breaks into a bumping, grinding lip-sync to The Weather Girls’ rendition of “It’s Raining Men (Hallelujah)” cascading out of the jukebox.

The Clover is a tiny place – only eleven red-topped stools at the split counter and four tables. What’s more, it’s visually bland. The whitewashed exterior probably hasn’t changed much since 1939, the year generally thought to be when the diner opened although no one is sure enough to bet a dollar on it. There’s a fading generic Coca-Cola sign at the corner and the dining room is awash in pink tile. A sign painted on the window proclaims “HAMBURGERS WORLD’S BEST.” If it hadn’t been plopped down in the middle of Bourbon Street, it could be anywhere else in America.

The menu is generic – a build-your-own burger, a short order breakfast, chicken fried steak, a pork chop, waffle, omelets, some predictable sandwiches and, of course, the Clover Weenie. Scattered through the menu are about a dozen quips, the humor value of which generally falls somewhere between a groaner and out-and-out lame. “We don’t eat in your bed, so please don’t sleep at our table. Our chili speaks for itself...sooner or later. You can beat our prices, but you can’t beat our meat.” The only thing missing is a septuagenarian drummer firing off vaudeville rimshots.

It is tempting to say that the key to the Clover’s success is that everything is served with a side order of attitude, but that would be inaccurate because, really, attitude is the main course. Without its sassy, brassy attitude, the Clover would be just another overlooked diner with a New Orleans address. That would be a shame, too, because the food is surprisingly good for its category.

That’s not to say the food is a beautifully styled work of art when it arrives. Chances are it was slopped on a homely ceramic plate that landed at your place at the counter or table with a brusque thump. While the service is both affable and thoughtful, not to mention funny as hell at times, it isn’t graceful. It will be a long time, perhaps one afternoon when there are snowball fights in Jackson Square, before any of them trade in their Clover t-shirts for tuxedos and start tossing out bon mots en Française at Antoine’s.

The food itself makes me think of the point in time, most likely in college, when I discovered that breakfast was more than fuel to be bolted down before dashing off to a snooze-worthy lecture. It’s late night, after midnight chow, designed to soak up excess booze without making someone want another round. This is acknowledged on Clover’s website, where a mini-ad reads, “We’re Open 24 Hours Because Food Tastes Better After Midnight.”

The active ingredient at breakfast appears to be butter, enough butter to make a cardiologist start counting new money or TV chef Paula Deen smile. In fact, sitting on the edge of the flat-top is a tall saucepot of melted butter, into which a ladle is regularly dipped and its contents poured over eggs and grits. If you happen to be sitting at the counter and watching the cook work, you might even feel your arteries clog up right on the spot.

The scrambled eggs and omelets are remarkably light and fluffy, the result of being spun with a splash of water in an old soda parlor milkshake blender. Eggs are fried directly on the flat-top before being (surprise!) finished with butter.

There is the general assortment of meats one expects in a short order joint. Having developed a personal aversion to having breakfast bacon cooked to the point it can be snapped with my fingers, I unthinkingly told the waiter that I wanted my meat limp. Suffice it to say that the ensuing cackling and pandemonium on the part of the kitchen staff reminded me that the Clover probably may not have been the wisest place to make such a request.

The gimmick of hamburgers at the Clover Grill is that when they’re sizzling on the flat-top, they’re covered with a hubcap (always American-made, so they claim), which serves to steam the beef patty while it cooks. What results is a juicy, home-style burger with a homemade flavor, something that seems more difficult to find nowadays, when more and more restaurants cook on open grills or in broilers, and short order cafés have been replaced by fast food emporia. To loyal Clover patrons, their hubcap burger proudly serves as a defiant refutation of food writer Calvin Trillin’s tenet that “anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his home town is a sissy.”

In a place where waiters proudly sport ball caps emblazoned with “DIVA” and “Delta Queen,” where hard-earned hangovers are nursed with strong coffee and unsuspecting tourists drop their jaws at the 24/7 floor show, the quality of the food is often overlooked. To do so at the Clover Grill would be a grave injustice. It may not be ambitious, trendy or urbane, but thank God it doesn’t try to be. The Clover dishes up straight-ahead, classic American hash house chow without apology, because with solid, filling food prepared this well, apologies become needless.

Of course the place has its detractors. The Clover is totally polarizing; people may love it or loathe it, but chances are they’ll never forget it. And through it all, the cooks and countermen just keep on dancing.


The Clover Grill, 900 Bourbon Street (at Dumaine)

Open 24/7 with no reservations

Telephone: (504) 598-1010, Website: www.clovergrill.com

Thursday, May 20, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Herbsaint Bar and Resturant

The shrimp was, quite simply, a revelation -- still tender and carrying a taste that made me dream of salt air and tall ships, but prominently balanced among the vibrant flavors combined around it. In truth, I have never had better.

How can you help but like stories of people who have bootstrapped their way from the bottom to the top? Case in point: Donald Link, the proprietor and executive chef of Herbsaint, the Louisiana bistro with a decidedly French accent – or should that be the other way around?

A truly local talent, Link’s culinary career started at age 15 washing dishes and scrubbing pots in a cramped restaurant scullery. In a story with so many Horatio Alger overtones that no self-respecting Hollywood producer would ever think of filming it, Link kicked around New Orleans kitchens, picking up a trick here, a technique there until he had learned enough skills to start developing a reputation of his own.

In 1993, he headed west to San Francisco, where he attended the Culinary Institute of America and started broadening his horizons in Bay Area restaurants. He returned to New Orleans in 1995, lured by the opportunity to work with Susan Spicer, whose five year-old French Quarter restaurant, Bayona, was already one of the city’s most celebrated places to dine.

After a two-year stint that saw him rise to sous chef at Bayona, Link returned to the Bay Area, working for three more years before once again returning to New Orleans for the opportunity that would make the Crescent City his permanent home. Working with Spicer again, but this time as collaborator and partner, he opened Herbsaint near the heart of New Orleans’ Central Business District (CBD).

Within a few years, Spicer sold her interest to her partner and refocused her energies on Bayona, a new cookbook and a less formal restaurant in the city’s Lakeview section. Link continued keeping Herbsaint on track and also expanded his circle of operations to include a stylish new restaurant named Cochon (French for “pig”) with an accompanying charcuterie.

Were this indeed a Horatio Alger story, years of hard work, gumption and pluck would have followed and Herbsaint would have slowly grown into a beloved mainstay of the New Orleans restaurant scene. The truth is, Herbsaint was an overnight sensation, that is, if it took that long at all.

While no one will ever mistake Herbsaint for one of the grand palaces of haute cuisine New Orleans style, there exists a natural synchronicity between the city and the bistro that is undeniable.

Should you stand across the street and look at Herbsaint, it looks as if someone scattered some tables and chairs in front of a prepossessing, utilitarian building. But as you look longer, you’ll notice the tables have white linen tablecloths, while the building has a small gallery and sits behind a stand of leafy trees. The thought that someone might have lifted the whole street corner from a Paris backstreet is almost unavoidable. But every few minutes, the rumble and clatter of an aged green streetcar rolling down historic St. Charles Avenue serves to remind you that you could only be in one American city, and it is “the city that care forgot.”

Should you choose to dine inside, Herbsaint is a decidedly understated room. There are some postmodern light fixtures interspersed along the walls that keep the room from feeling blank. A screened fabric depicting tuxedoed jazz musicians subtly blends into the large wall at the back end of the dining room. The bar itself is small and tucked into a corner of the main room, out of the main traffic, and making the place’s appellation as a “bar and restaurant” seem reversed. Whether by accident or intent, there is a feeling that the room itself is understated so as not to detract from the main event, which is most assuredly the food.

Like the physical restaurant itself, Herbsaint’s cuisine seems to have one foot in France and its other in Louisiana. This is not surprising, considering that both Spicer and Link spent the bulk of their formative years in New Orleans and had the early parts of their careers shaped in restaurants with pronounced Gallic influences. The result is a fusion that is at once local and global, contemporary but with a classical pedigree. Although it has been a number of years since Spicer’s departure, the plates at Herbsaint still reflect the natural collaboration of two chefs with comparable backgrounds yet divergent points of view.

The menus for both lunch and dinner are relatively short, with each offering less than a dozen small plates and main courses in addition to soups, salads and sides. These are complemented by two or three off-menu specials that appear to revolve around seasonal specialties.

The language of the menus is both spare and matter of fact, adding an air of elegant simplicity to the cuisine itself. With such offerings as “sautéed Louisiana jumbo shrimp with mushrooms, bacon and spoon bread” and “Muscovy duck leg confit with dirty rice and citrus gastrique,” adjectives designed to rouse an appetite would seem not only superfluous, but downright silly.

About the only place the simplicity of the menu language fails is the “antipasto plate” located on the small plates section of the dinner menu. When I ordered it without asking what items or ingredients were included, I had done so with the suspicion it might contain a morsel or two from Link’s charcuterie at Cochon, duly famous for using “every part of the pig except the squeal.” Once it arrived, the waiter pointed out each item and explained what it was so rapidly that my memory could not absorb, let alone retain the inventory. To my delight, I was served what effectively amounted to a sampling platter from Cochon, containing a petite ramekin of a rabbit terrine, a pâté, shaved slices of a hard sausage and three or four other items with names I can’t recall, but the flavors of which I’ll not soon forget.

The antipasto plate was an effective curtain-raiser for the Muscovy Duck, which had a deep, smoky flavor evocative of Cajun country, an effect that was amplified by combining the duck with dirty rice, the regional specialty cooked with chicken livers and gizzards, onion, peppers and garlic. The citrus gastrique glazing the duck, a reduction of caramelized sugar and oranges, finished the dish with an inspired whisper of French culinary classicism.

The Levelheaded One (who has a knack for ordering what I really wanted but didn’t know it) opted for a simple green salad, followed by a shrimp risotto with capers in a buttery sauce. The shrimp was, quite simply, a revelation -- still tender and carrying a taste that made me dream of salt air and tall ships, but prominently balanced among the vibrant flavors combined around it. In truth, I have never had better.

If anything, balance seems to be the watchword at Herbsaint. From its beginning in 2000, the restaurant has seemed to effortlessly balance the culinary classicism of La Belle France with the Cajun and Creole cooking traditions of New Orleans. Herbsaint’s exceptional owner/chef Donald Link has balanced the pressures of maintaining the standards not only of such an extraordinary restaurant, but also of Cochon, its accompanying charcuterie and a private dining facility, Calcasieu, named for the Louisiana parish in which he grew up. In the process, he was named a James Beard Award winner for both his work in the kitchen (Best Chef: South, 2007) and as the author of Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana (Best Cookbook, 2009).

Horatio Alger would be mighty proud.

Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant, 701 St. Charles (at Girod Street)

Lunch served Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Dinner served Monday-Saturday 5:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.

BISTRO open Monday-Friday 1:30 – 5:30 p.m.

All major credit cards accepted and reservations strongly advised.

Telephone: (504) 524-4114; Website: www.herbsaint.com

Monday, May 17, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Breakfast at Brennan's

Like dinner at Antoine’s, breakfast at Brennan’s is the stuff of New Orleans legends – the Crescent City equivalent of lunch at New York’s Four Seasons or a stone crab claw feast at Joe’s in Miami.
If you collect visits to “name” restaurants, particularly those that are venerable to the point of myth, no one is going to talk you out of going to Brennan’s, where you’ll most likely get a perfectly adequate breakfast for an extortionate price.
As of this writing (May of 2010), the prix fixe for a three-course breakfast at Brennan’s, consisting of appetizer, entrée and dessert is $36. Price, of course, is relative. While someone living in Manhattan’s East Sixties may not raise an eyebrow at the idea of thirty-six bucks for breakfast, such a price will certainly raise the blood pressure of most Middle Americans, and the truth is, you’d have to examine the room service menus of a number of New Orleans’ swankiest hotels to find a price anywhere near that rarefied range.
Since my main home is in a small Southern city, I’ll admit to gulping once when I first saw the prix fixe, but that gulp was quickly followed by a shrug. What the hell, it’s Brennan’s in New Orleans, it’s special, it’s iconic, I haven’t been here in years. Mollified by my easy rationale, I dove into the menu, and that was when the storm clouds started to brew on my furling brow.
Brennan’s is renowned for having some of the best turtle soup in America – right up there with Mandina’s and K-Paul’s, not to mention several other restaurants within the Brennan family’s New Orleans empire. In fact, the soup is invariably my appetizer when I order it for $6.50 a cup a la carte at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse in the French Quarter. And here it was on the Brennan’s breakfast menu if I wanted to add another eight bucks to the prix fixe. What? A $6.50 a la Carte cup of soup for an additional $8 on a $36 prix fixe menu? For breakfast?
Holding my soup decision in abeyance, I studied the entrée list. The vast majority of the choices were variations on Eggs Benedict, substituting such items as creamed spinach, speckled trout, salmon, a beef hash and the like. One that sounded particularly good and local was Eggs Nouvelle Orléans, where the Benedict’s traditional Canadian bacon was replaced by buttery lump crabmeat. There it was, right on the menu, just before the small type advising me of the $12 additional surcharge. Suddenly, the speckled trout substitution sans surcharge seemed a lot easier to swallow.
It came as no surprise to see another surcharge; this one five bucks, for a dessert of Bananas Foster, the restaurant’s signature culinary creation. In truth, Bananas Foster is a remarkably simple dish – a lengthwise sliced banana sautéed in a chafing dish with brown sugar, butter and banana liqueur. Once cooked, a coupe of shots of rum is poured into the pan, flambéed for a dash of showmanship and the entire concoction is served over and around vanilla ice cream. While the fireball’s flash and audible “whoomph” no doubt garnered a lot more “oohs” and “aahs” over fifty years ago when the dish was created, it nevertheless adds a celebratory finishing touch to a breakfast that pays homage to the notion of self-indulgence. But what’s five bucks in the greater scheme of things? Going to Brennan’s and not ordering their Bananas Foster is like going to Radio City Music Hall and walking out before the Rockettes goes into their high kick finish.
Not wanting to belabor the point about money, it is tempting at this point to start commenting on the food, which is still quite good. Unfortunately, money is the point of breakfast at Brennan’s. Let’s review the math.
The prix fixe breakfast is listed for $36, but an upgrade to the restaurant’s renowned turtle soup is an additional eight dollars, substituting locally caught Louisiana lump crabmeat for Canadian bacon adds another twelve bucks, and the celebrated Bananas Fosters is another picture of Abe Lincoln. Add it all up and the $36 breakfast has grown by sixty-nine percent into a $61 fine print fleecing.
While The Levelheaded One and I were negotiating our way through the menus, a table of four was seated next to us. It took them under two minutes to look at their menus and leave. Because I live in mortal fear of being perceived as an inveterate cheapskate, all I could do was watch them with wistful envy.
The Levelheaded One settled on a $36 prix fixe, consisting of Oyster Soup Brennan, Shrimp Benedict and Louisiana Chocolate Pecan Pie. Her soup was both rich and briny the way a soup with fresh oysters should be, fried shrimp replacing poached eggs in an otherwise classic Benedict provided a novel Crescent City twist on the old culinary warhorse, and her pie made up with flavor for what it may have lacked in inspiration.
For five dollars more, I ordered Creole Onion Soup, Eggs St. Charles and Bananas Foster. The only real differences I saw between traditional French onion soup and the Brennan’s offering were that the soup was slightly thicker and had a bit of a yellowish hue, which I am guessing was due more to the addition of turmeric than saffron. The egg entrée had fried trout instead of Canadian bacon under the poached eggs and Hollandaise. While there was certainly nothing wrong with the dish, it sounded more interesting than it actually turned out. The Bananas Foster were, in a word, superb, despite their final presentation being incongruously banal considering the flashy showmanship that goes into their preparation.
In addition to our breakfasts, The Levelheaded One and I indulged in what Brennan’s refers to as “eye openers,” in this case one Bloody Mary each. We passed on the website’s helpful advise that “It's traditional to have wine with breakfast at Brennan's -- we recommend: Pouilly Fuisse, Louis Jadot,” since we had already found our check for $105.91 before tip to be eye opening enough.
After passing on a table in the first parlor, which had all the nondescript charm of the breakfast room at a roadside hotel, we were seated in a glassed-in room that ran alongside the restaurant’s patio. It was pleasant enough, but like the fiery preparation of dessert, its wow factor seemed more suitable to times gone by. By today’s standards, it was fairly ordinary.
Our young waiter, who looked like a kid going to his first prom in a rental tuxedo, was personable when he wasn’t trying to be a comedian and trying when he did. Granted, Hurricane Katrina caused the retirement, relocation or worse of many of the old, patrician waiters that had long been an integral part of the grand old New Orleans restaurants, of which Brennan’s is certainly still one -- at least by reputation. Just the same, there was something both unctuous and off-putting about a young pup trying to act like he possessed the wisdom of a polished professional thirty years his senior. This was enhanced when he rather too loudly griped to a colleague about the four-dollar tip left by a businesswoman who dined simply, quickly and alone.
One of the most endearing aspects of New Orleans when compared to most American cities is its open and obvious affection for its culinary traditions. Places with long, storied histories like Antoine’s (since 1840), Galatoire’s (1906), Mandina’s (1932) and Tujague’s (1856) are not only patronized by local residents, they are revered. While Brennan’s (opened in 1946) is a relative newcomer to this circle of venerability, it is also the flagship for a family of the city’s better restaurants. If the restaurant expects a bright future, it needs to do more than to try to live off its past.
That said, Brennan’s remains a viable experience for the well-heeled traveler looking not so much for a legendary breakfast as a legendary name to drop – and who is willing to drop more money than it’s worth for the privilege.

Brennan’s, 417 Royal Street (between Conti and St. Louis Streets)
Open Monday – Friday 9 am - 1pm, Dinner from 6pm - 9pm,
Saturday and Sunday 9am - 2pm, Dinner 6pm - 9pm
All major credit cards honored, and reservations are required.
Telephone: (504) 572-9711, Website: www.brennansneworleans.com

Friday, May 7, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Surrey's Cafe and Juice Bar

When I first discover a restaurant on a Food Network or Travel Channel TV program, my initial impulse is cynicism. All too often it seems, a restaurant is featured for it visual appeal instead of it culinary merit.

It’s tough and probably unfair to blame the program’s producer, particularly if you accept as true James Beard’s tenet that cooking is a series of a myriad variations on a few basic techniques (i.e., cut, mix, stir, bake, etc.). After all, how many times do you have to see a chef chop scallions or put a battered lump of something into hot oil before you have an idea of how it’s done?

Add the fact that the average American’s diet consists of fast food meals 55% of the time (Source: ecosalon magazine, Jan. 15, 2008) and it becomes obvious that it takes more than good home cooking to capture public attention. This certainly explains the recent proliferation of food programming that’s competitive, celebratory of extreme gluttony or set in a dining establishment with a gimmick or visual “hook.”

Consequently, I’m wary of what I see on televised food programming. That said, I’ve developed a tentative respect for Guy Fieri, the spiky-haired host of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. Fieri himself is refreshingly lowbrow, frenetic and buoyantly gung-ho, and “Triple-D,” as he calls his program, is a gonzo valentine to greasy spoons, truck stops, hash houses and other maverick eateries across America.

To date, I’ve been to three New Orleans places upon which Fieri and his crew have descended: The Creole Creamery, a Prytania Street ice cream parlor with a penchant for quirky flavorings; The Joint, a ramshackle Bywater barbecue oasis in a city that’s traditionally been a desert for the smoky cuisine; and Surrey’s Café & Juice Bar, a quasi-funky neighborhood place that serves food that probably isn’t nearly as healthy as the name would lead you to believe. While all three restaurants are evidence that Team Fieri certainly knows how to pick ‘em, Surrey’s rises to a level that puts it in a small circle of local places where breakfast transcends ham’n’eggs and becomes a meal worthy of New Orleans’ culinary standing.

Take a dish that’s as prosaic as corned beef hash. Surrey’s makes its own hash, something not unheard of in more upscale restaurants, but uses the predictable blend of corned beef and hash brown potatoes as a jumping off point for what amounts to a whirlwind tour of backwoods Cajun charcuteries. Hash à la Surrey is enhanced through the addition of a trio of: andouille, a spicy smoked sausage made from pork chitlins and tripe; crumbled boudin blanc, the sturdy Louisiana pork sausage made with rice and onions; and tasso, a peppery ham seasoned with garlic, cayenne pepper and filé gumbo (powdered sassafras leaves) among other spices and then smoked for two days. The result is a thoroughly original concoction, redolent with herbs, spices and hardwood smoke, yet one that offers the homespun warmth of “comfort” food.

Surrey’s takes a nod toward New Orleans’ Creole heritage with Bananas Foster French Toast, a Crescent City variation on the old breakfast standby. (Originally created as a dessert at Brennan’s French Quarter restaurant roughly sixty years ago, Bananas Foster is a mixture of the fruit flambéed in a sauce made of butter, brown sugar and rum and served over ice cream.) The Surrey’s rendition is battered slices of French bread stuffed with a mixture of bananas and cream cheese, battered and fried in the conventional method, and then topped with the classic butter, banana, brown sugar and rum sauce. For all its lack of caloric moderation, the dish is lighter than one might expect, but it’s still one you probably don’t want to tell your doctor back home about.

The Louisiana flavors motif continues with a breakfast boudin biscuit or a classic Shrimp & Grits topped with bacon and green onions in a New Orleans “barbecue” sauce of butter and herbs. At lunch, the barbecue shrimp is available in a plenty-of-napkins po’boy. The truth is, calling the shrimp “barbecue” is a local misnomer, since its preparation has absolutely nothing to do with the classic brazier or grilling methods most commonly associated with the term.

New Orleans style barbecue is generally cooked in a cast iron skillet, although some variations are baked in an oven. The base is a sauce made of butter and seafood stock, enhanced with the chef’s choice of spices, but almost always containing cayenne pepper somewhere in the blend.

Surrey’s menu takes a Latin American turn with heuvos rancheros, migas, a Costa Rican breakfast served with black beans topped with pico de gallo and several sides with a Hispanic flair. The remainder of the menu consists of relatively conventional breakfast items, sandwiches, foccacia and salads. The restaurant is vegan friendly and organic sensitive. It is somewhat uncommon to be given a same price choice of one egg or one organic yard egg, at least in the Deep South, but considering Surrey’s roots as a juice bar, it doesn’t seem out of place.

If all the above choices aren’t eclectic enough for you, Surrey’s also boils and bakes its own bagels on premises before using them as a platform for sandwiches or topping them with the traditional lox, cream cheese, capers, cucumbers and red onion. Much like the organic yard egg, there’s a left-handed logic to its inclusion, and therein lies the charm of Surrey’s.

If anything, Surrey’s is a study in cheerful eclecticism. One gets the idea that the menu has evolved over the years through a combination of trial and error, chatting up customers, an overstuffed suggestion box and a watchful eye on changing tastes that’s surprising for the often hidebound and gastronomically xenophobic citizenry of New Orleans.

The café’s location no doubt has something to do with its charm. Despite the fact that Magazine Street is a series of commercial clusters housing some of the city’s trendiest shopping, Surrey’s is on a quiet, tree-lined stretch between downtown and the first of many blocks of merchants. Tucked behind a seemingly haphazard thicket of greenery, between Creole townhouses and across the street from a school playground, the place has the drowsy, tropical vibe that defines the city so loved by its residents.

That unstudied informality pervades the café’s interior as well. The juice bar faces the front door and the café is a shotgun hallway that runs down the side of the building. Odds and ends cover the walls and a bikinied mannequin is stretched out in a hammock suspended over tables in the rear of the room. The ceilings are high enough to accommodate large transoms, upon the outside of which a sharp-eyed customer can occasionally spy a sunning chameleon or two. It is a room that begs customers to stay a cup of coffee longer and chat or read another section of the paper.

Originally open from Wednesday through Sunday, Surrey’s recently expanded its operation to seven days a week. Weekends can prove to be remarkably busy with long waits, so Mrs. McH and I have made it our habit to linger over a mid-morning breakfast there on weekdays, when there’s almost always an open table.

Despite the café’s being discovered and broadcast nationally by Diners, Drive Ins & Dives, Surrey’s so far remains unspoiled and seems to fly beneath the radar of residents and visitors alike without a meaningful marketing program beyond what comes out on its plates. Let’s just hope it stays that way.


Surrey’s Café & Juice Bar, 1418 Magazine Street (near Euterpe)
Open everyday from 8 a.m. through 3 p.m.
Surrey’s is cash only – no credit cards or reservations.
Telephone: (504) 524-3828
Website: www.surreyscafeandjuicebar.com