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