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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

Monday, July 26, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse

Photo credit: www.dickiebrennanssteakhouse.com

Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse

The operative word here is “touch,” particularly in light of what has come to be known as a New Orleans style steak, the twofold disaster in which locals take great pride.

For the first twenty years I spent visiting New Orleans, I made the mistake of avoiding steakhouses. I had been born and raised in Omaha, the epicenter of steak country, and I had fallen into the predictable trap of hometown chauvinism. The way I see it now, that arrogance cost me twenty years of good dining.

Most people don’t associate New Orleans with steak, which is understandable considering the city’s access to fresh seafood from Louisiana and the nearby Gulf. It’s also a shame. New Orleans is a good steak town, perhaps not the hands down best in America, but it certainly merits a place in the discussion.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is the old maxim that you can almost always get a superlative steak in a restaurant that specializes in fish, but you rarely get a great fish dinner in a steakhouse. While the line cook at a restaurant’s broiler station may beg to differ, better chefs tend to keep a more watchful eye on a piece of fish than they do on a steak. That kitchen vigilance becomes a habit, the benefit of which is visited upon other dishes, including steak, which in and of itself is relatively easy to prepare.

Whether or not that’s true, New Orleanians have always included steak as part of their culinary heritage, and with a certain amount of success. Charlie’s Steak House opened in 1932. Crescent City Steak House dates back to 1934. The international Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain got its start in New Orleans in the middle 1960s, when the single mother of two mortgaged her house for $22,000 and bought the 60-seat “Chris Steak House.” All retain a presence in New Orleans today, although Ruth’s Chris is now headquartered in Florida and they chose not to rebuild their flagship Broad Street location after Katrina, opting instead to set up shop as a Dining Partner within the Harrah’s Casino complex on Canal Street.

Like most cities, New Orleans has its share of local and chain steakhouses all over the metropolitan area, ranging from budget family places to white tablecloth, expense account outposts of the Morton’s and Shula’s franchise operations.

While most visitors working on limited time frames will choose to dine in restaurants featuring or famous for local seafood, from time to time almost everyone gets a craving for the simple pleasure of a stiff drink and a thick steak. As the years have drifted by, The Sensible One and I have found ourselves satisfying these primal urges at Dickie Brennan’s Steak House, particularly on Sunday nights when a lot of the city’s better restaurants are dark.

Dickie’s is a white tablecloth place, although its location next to the Acme Oyster Bar one-half block off the Bourbon Street strip has caused the restaurant to lower its dress standards to those you would expect in a tourism-driven district. While the website describes the dress code as Upscale Casual and claims that “coats (are) often seen, but never required,” a quick look around the place will tell you that there are untold millions of people in America who never look at web pages.

Fashion atrocities aside, the French Quarter bedlam quickly recedes as you descend the stairway into a rare-for-New-Orleans basement room with a clubby atmosphere that bespeaks “big boy steak house” without ever having to raise its voice.

The service reflects the New Orleans where serving people is a profession, a career rather than a job. The bartenders pour hard into sturdy glassware, one of the telltale signs of an honest-to-God steakhouse. The dining room staff is soft-spoken and attentive albeit surprisingly young, a consequence of the well documented post-Katrina exodus by legions of the city’s older, more established people in the foodservice industry.

The food is classic steakhouse fare with a New Orleans twist here and there. The headliner, of course, is beef, and it is USDA Prime whenever the meat is available in the city. With the exception of the 16-ounce, which is seared in a cast iron skillet, the steaks are grilled before being finished with a touch of Creole seasoned butter.

The operative word here is “touch,” particularly in light of what has come to be known as a New Orleans style steak, the twofold disaster in which locals take great pride. At first blush steak “New Orleans style” sounds like a winner – a hot steak delivered on a sizzling platter, the sizzle caused by a pool of butter melted to within a whisker of burning. While an impressive bit of showmanship, the spattering butter can be hell on a wardrobe, and the heat of the platter keeps cooking the steak throughout dinner, rendering a steak that arrives rare on delivery into one that’s medium by the last forkful. Much to their everlasting credit, the cooks at Dickie Brennan’s play it straight, the USDA Prime steak maintains its specified degree of doneness and you don’t walk out onto the street freckled with butter spatters.

There is, of course, the obligatory slow-roasted prime rib and a fish dish on the menu, but the knockout of the non-steaks is the Center Cut Pork Porterhouse, marinated in citrus and honey, and served with andouille and chive, all topped with a brand apple-pecan demi-glace. It is a welcome and surprising departure from a business-as-usual steakhouse menu. There are also specials, among them a Porterhouse Veal Chop, which The Sensible One looks for when she first opens her menu.

While the entrees, salads and sides at Dickie Brennan’s are fairly straightforward; the restaurant’s New Orleans heritage becomes obvious in the starters and soups. The appetizer menu features a shrimp boil served with remoulade sauce, peppery New Orleans traditional barbecue shrimp, Louisiana Oysters McIlhenny (the Tabasco sauce family) and a crawfish/artichoke dip. Soups include gumbo and the turtle soup, which has become one of the calling cards of restaurants operated by the Brennan family.

As if the preceding isn’t enough, there is a dessert menu. Like those at most steakhouses, the dessert menu at Dickie’s is perfunctory, an afterthought for people who manage to still be hungry after a meal of epic portions. But hidden near the bottom of the dessert menu is a signature item I find impossible to resist – a seven-layer Italian cream and coconut cake in a pool of cream sauce. I never have room for it, but I always order a slice to share with The Sensible One and somehow the plate always goes back to the scullery empty. What the hell. Heaven on Seven now, pain later.

The restaurant industry is devoted, of course, to pleasure instead of pain, and throughout my life I have been advised by doctors, mentors, sages and preachers to seek moderation in all things. But excuse me, we’re talking Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse here, arguably the best steakhouse in a city where even prime beef takes an undeserved back seat to seafood. So I dig in and let the doctor scream, because I can never remember whether nothing succeeds like success, or nothing exceeds like excess.

On both levels, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse is a triumph.

Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, 716 Iberville Street (between Bourbon &Royal Streets)

Dinner served nightly, 5:30 p.m. -10:00 p.m.
Lunch served Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.

The Bar opens at 5 p.m.

All major credit cards accepted

Reservations strongly recommended

Telephone: 504.522.2467

Website: www.dickiebrennanssteakhouse.com

Friday, July 23, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Bayona


For well over twenty years, I have been unsuccessfully trying to describe Susan Spicer, the celebrated owner/chef of Bayona in the French Quarter – and that’s precisely how I’ve described her. It’s as futile as trying to describe a chameleon by using only one color.

The problem is, just when I think I have her pegged, she changes and what was once a concise assessment is hopelessly out of date. This has been going on for almost a quarter century, during which I have been regally fed in her restaurants, charmed during our brief howdy-shakes when she makes her rounds, and exasperated when I’ve tried and failed to replicate her signature pepper jelly glazed duck breast in my own kitchen, armed with her recipe but handicapped by my own talent.

Not too long ago, I was looking for something to cook and started thumbing through her superb Crescent City Cooking, a cookbook I thought was never going to come out. In her opening paragraph, she reminisces about a warm spring evening in 1979 when she walked in front of the restaurant on Dauphine Street that would ultimately become Bayona. She was on her way to her first cooking job.

I couldn’t help but wonder if I was sitting in the restaurant that evening. The restaurant was Maison Pierre, where Cajun/French chef Pierre Lacoste was making a big noise putting out classic French food with Louisiana ingredients. I remember the place as being appropriately fussy and French, but not much else beyond it being the first restaurant where I ever saw a $5,000 bottle on the wine list. (I asked the waiter if anyone had ever bought one and he imperiously told me that the house had sold two – to the same table in one evening, to two Texans celebrating a rather substantial oil strike.)

Spicer’s rise through the ranks in kitchens was rapid. In 1986, after a couple of stints in New Orleans and Paris, some extensive traveling and a first executive chef gig at a now defunct restaurant called Savoir Faire, she opened the 40-seat Bistro at Maison de Ville, the French Quarter jewel box of a hotel where Tennessee Williams is said to have drafted the greater part of A Streetcar Named Desire. To a kitchen so small it included only one oven, four burners and a refrigerator in the alley, Spicer brought her seven short years of experience to a city with a centuries old reputation as one of America’s centers of fine cuisine.

From that point forward, it’s been pretty much a Cinderella story for Spicer, minus the cruel stepmother, the glass slipper and the coach that turned into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.

The Bistro at Maison de Ville was a success from the beginning, and it was there where Spicer developed such signature dishes as her Cream of Garlic Soup, Grilled Shrimp with Black Bean Cakes and her Seared Duck Breast with Pepper Jelly Glaze. Through the pass-through window opening up to the postage stamp of a kitchen, Chef Spicer could watch people react to the food, which helped her refine current dishes and fine-tune new ones.

It was during her years at Maison De Ville when her original cooking (which she dubbed “New World” cuisine) was wrongly labeled as nouvelle cuisine and she became falsely typecast as a practitioner of nouvelle (which was once described by a comedian as “I just paid $94 for what?”). This was at a time when nouvelle cuisine was the darling of New York culinary/media circles, and almost any type of cooking using an unusual ingredient was hailed as an innovative example.

Despite the runaway success of both the cuisine and Spicer’s reputation, the Bistro at Maison de Ville was owned by the hotel, and entrepreneurial fires were beginning to burn in its headline chef. One of Spicer’s regular customers, Regina Keever offered to back her in a restaurant of her own, and on April Fool’s night of 1990, the building which had once housed Maison Pierre opened its doors as Bayona, which was the name of Dauphine Street when New Orleans was under its original Spanish rule. It had been ten-and-one-half years since Susan Spicer admired the building on the way to her first kitchen job.

With a ready-built fan base from her years at Bistro, a site that had already been a headline restaurant and a chef with a penchant for experimentation and invention, it took little time for Bayona to grow into one of New Orleans’ most beloved restaurants, a reputation corroborated when Spicer was named Best Chef, South in the 1997 James Beard Awards, the top accolades in the American restaurant industry. By this time, Chef Spicer had become a permanent fixture in discussions of the city’s new guard of chefs along with Frank Brigtsen, Emeril Lagasse and other rising stars opening their own restaurants within a few years of each other.

Despite Spicer’s success and the attention paid to her cuisine, a clear label for it remained elusive. The “New World” designation gained some traction, but no one could adequately say what it meant. Due to the excesses of self-promoting chefs more concerned with an ingredient’s eccentricity than its flavor, the nouvelle cuisine moniker was losing its cachet. Complicating the process was the fact that Spicer was (and remains) an inveterate tinkerer whose cuisine kept evolving as she continued learning.

And perhaps that’s the most appropriate name for Spicer’s style of cooking – evolutionary. With life changes come cooking changes. Her later in life marriage and instant family of two children started bringing elements of traditional “home cooking” more to the forefront in her recipe development.

Through her collaboration with former partner Donald Link in their very successful restaurant Herbsaint, a new depth and rusticity came into her repertoire. In 2010, she opened another new restaurant, Mondo, in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood as a casual alternative to the more formal Bayona. If history serves as any guide, expect further changes in Bayona’s menus to reflect the new discoveries Spicer makes in her constantly evolving whirlwind of a life.

A look at the Bayona menu, which changes regularly to take advantage of the seasonal freshness of regionally produced ingredients, and her cookbook gives me the impression that, in most cases, Louisiana is the source of a recipe’s central ingredient and the rest of the world is her spice cabinet. This can be found in such dishes as Indian-spiced Turkey Breast with Creamy Red Lentils, Mediterranean Roasted Shrimp with Crispy Risotto Cakes or Shrimp Salad with Fennel and Herbed Cream Cheese on Brioche.

There’s also a playful side to Spicer, one of whose most often ordered lunch items is Smoked Duck “PBJ” with Casher Butter, Pepper Jelly, and Apple-Celery Salad, a gourmet take on the old favorite childhood finger food.

Both Bayona’s lunch and dinner menus always feature several of the chef’s established signature dishes, and fresh-from-market items that have been the beneficiaries of Spicer’s dazzling technical skills, intuitiveness and imagination.

The three smallish rooms and the private patio of the 200 year-old Creole cottage that house Bayona are conducive to civilized conversation without being stuffy. With apricot walls and a profusion of flowers, the white tablecloth restaurant has a formal look, but an unexpectedly informal feel to it. It is not uncommon, late in the evening shift when the kitchen becomes less frenetic, to see Spicer talking to customers and collecting opinions or enjoying a glass of white wine with old friends. The restaurant is very much “home” to Susan Spicer, and she goes out of her way to make you feel like it’s yours as well.

After twenty years of success, the very notion of failure at Bayona is dismissed as preposterous, at least for as long as its energetic chef stays at the helm. But watching Susan Spicer work, as I have since her earliest days at the Bistro at Maison de Ville, one gets the feeling that one of her eyes will be as open to future opportunity as her heart has always been.

For the time being, at least, it’s business as usual at Bayona, and business is booming. As for tomorrow or next week or next year, who knows? It’s a constantly changing world for Chef Spicer, but there’s one thing you can be sure of. If you want a seat at one of her tables, you might want to make reservations several weeks in advance. Because time waits for nobody.


Bayona, 430 Dauphine Street (between Conti & St. Louis Streets)
Lunch served Wednesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m.
Dinner served Monday through Saturday starting at 6 p.m.
Dark on Sunday
All major credit cards accepted and reservations are essential
Telephone: 504-525-4455
Website: www.bayona.com

Sunday, July 18, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Drago's

Drago’s has a long menu, in fact one that’s ridiculously long considering that most of the people who come in appear to be ordering one item.

The item is Charbroiled Oysters, a house creation that’s become the most widely imitated New Orleans dish since Paul Prudhomme blackened his first redfish and launched a national craze.

The Drago’s concept is remarkably simple, so much so that the only thing really remarkable is that no one thought of it until 1993, when second generation manager Tommy Cvitanovich poured some house barbecue drumfish sauce (butter, garlic and a handful of herbs) over some oysters on the half shell, sprinkled a little parmesan cheese on top and slapped it on the charcoal grill. The finished oysters are served in a generous amount of the sauce with enough ficelles to sop it up.

These days, according to the company website, the restaurant’s two locations put out about 900 dozen charbroiled oysters on a busy day. Stop and think, and the math becomes staggering. How many shuckers does it take to pop open nearly eleven thousand oysters in a day? How much butter does it take? Parmesan? Garlic? On the sales side of the equation, how many family-owned restaurants with only two locales gross several million a year? On one item?

In light of the restaurant’s runaway success since 1993, it’s difficult to put the previous twenty-four years of Drago’s operations in proper context. When Drago and Klara Cvitanovich first opened for business in 1969, they were just another mom-and-pop team trying to carve out a niche in the Metairie family restaurant marketplace, their Croatian heritage gave them an inside track.

Since settling in Louisiana and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, Croatian-Americans have been the backbone of the region’s oystering business. From seeding to harvesting, shucking and serving, successive generations of Croatians have been a mainstay of the industry, and it has long been believed, whether warranted or not, that the most preferred oysters have been held in reserve for “family” eateries.

Success for Croatians in the New Orleans restaurant industry has become a tradition. The Vodanovich family has operated Bozo’s (a Croation nickname for “Christopher) since the venerable seafood house opened in 1928. Uglesich’s opened in 1924 as a sandwich shop, but by the time it closed in May of 2005, three months before Hurricane Katrina, the ten-table restaurant in an iffy part of Central City had developed a national reputation of innovative seafood recipes. The Vojkovich family opened Crescent City Steakhouse in the city’s Seventh Ward in 1934, and with the exception of a few JazzFest posters on the wall, the city’s oldest family operated steakhouse looks very much the same as it did on opening night.

Located on a sleepy side street not far from New Orleans’ largest shopping center, Drago’s steadily built an enviable family business trade. Despite numerous expansions to the building and seemingly endless redecoration, what is now a major enterprise with more than three hundred employees manages to retain the family attitude and ambience that stretches over forty years back to the restaurant’s beginning. This is reflected in the menu’s comparative length and in the demeanor of the wait staff, some of whom look experienced enough to have their service stretch back to Day One.

The foundation of the lengthy menu, not surprisingly is local seafood, cooked in any number of ways. These are augmented by prime rib, veal, chicken, pasta dishes and one incongruous item called “Shuckee Duckee,” a blackened duck breast served over linguini and finished with oysters in a cream sauce. The entrees, and there are eighteen of them listed as specials, tend to run toward the complex in their preparation, the simplest being the traditional prime rib plate and the most complex appearing to be the Barbecue Drumfish (according to the menu as “Drumfish filet, lightly seasoned with fresh herbs, butter, and garlic grilled over an open flame. Served with fresh crabmeat and shrimp dressing, then topped with a crabmeat cream sauce”).

Despite such a panoply of entrees, Drago’s makes a point of emphasizing its live Maine lobsters. The live boilers start at a pound and go to well over three (listed as “Super Stud” on the menu), and the house also serves them stuffed or sauced three different ways. From my point of view as a visitor, there is something slightly anomalous about being in one of the world’s legendary seafood cities and ordering lobster from the frigid waters north of Boston, but I suppose even the denizens of paradise hanker for change from time to time.

In the name of full disclosure, I must tell you that I know very little of the food beyond the Charbroiled Oysters except what I read on the menu and observe when the occasional plate of something besides the original oysters passes by on its way to another table.

What’s the point?

When we visit Drago’s, The Sensible One and I always start with a dozen each of the originals before ordering another half dozen or more. Our record is five dozen, and the thing that makes me happiest is that the number of oysters presented is always divisible by two, which prevents an eye-to-eye showdown over the final bivalve and undoubtedly less than chivalrous behavior on my part.

In recent years, Drago’s has opened a second operation in the Hilton Riverside at the foot of Poydras Street. The food may be the same, but the place isn’t. In fact, compared to the original location, it’s remarkably sterile. While the original retains the feel of a flourishing family business, the Hilton locations retains the feel of, well, a Hilton.

For some visitors, food is food, a slightly interesting single step above fuel, and ambience is a minor concern. To the true experience seeker, the physical surroundings and service are as integral parts of a restaurant’s total flavor as the food. The Hilton’s downtown location, a couple of blocks from the French Quarter, is certainly more convenient for most visitors to the city. Whether or not ambient authenticity is important to you as a visitor is truly a matter of choice; either way, the oysters are great.

The runaway success of Drago’s charbroiled oysters has led, of course, to any number of restaurants imitating the dish, as happens with any new and successful recipe. In some cases, a dish is invented by one chef, but perfected by another. The Sensible One and I have a tendency to want to try a dish in its original configuration, which sends us searching for its point of origin. Perhaps we’re missing something newer and improved, but in the case of charbroiled oysters, we find ourselves returning time and again to the source – because improving on perfection is a mighty tall order.

Drago’s Seafood Restaurant

Original Location
3232 N Arnoult Rd, Metairie
Open Mondays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.

Closed Sundays

Closed All Major Holidays, July 4 - July 6 reopen July 7,

Mardi Gras weekend and some parade nights.

Telephone: 504-888-9254

Hilton New Orleans Riverside
2 Poydras Street
Open Mondays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Closed Sundays

Holiday schedule varies

Telephone: (504) 584-3911

Both restaurant accept all major credit cards

but accept no reservations

Website: www.dragosrestaurant.com

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Central Grocery

Photo credit: wallyg@flickr.com

Central Grocery Co.

Although olive salad is its most common name, people with a bent for linguistics may find it interesting to know that for the better part of the Twentieth Century, the concoction was generally referred to as “wop salad.”

The old neighborhood is mostly gone now. There’s not much that’s French about the historic French Market and, for that matter, there’s not too much market about it, either. For more than half a century, the area was New Orleans’ “Little Italy,” but subsequent generations of immigrant Italian families emigrated first to Mid-City, then the suburbs, leaving the lower Decatur Street area without much of a cohesive identity.

You’ll still find a few trattoria and pizza joints tucked between Mardi Gras bead shops, Goth bars, boutiques prone to turnover, glorified convenience stores pumping ear-splitting zydeco into the streets and what appears to be a post-hippie, seemingly lost generation of runaways looking for something – meaning perhaps. You’ll find just about as much authentic Italiana at Olive Garden.

Yet in the middle of all this scrambled identity is an unassuming storefront. The address is 923 Decatur Street, and the name of the place couldn’t be more generic – Central Grocery Company – but take one step inside and you’re an ocean away in Palermo.

In the commercialized, Americanized lower half of the French Quarter, Central Grocery is the last paisano standing. Established in 1906, the storefront groceria has outlived countless competitors to gain a special standing in the hearts of New Orleanians.

While it may be true that time has taken its toll on Central Grocery, which keeps chipping away snippets of its charm more for the convenience of the people who work there and less for those who shop and buy, you only need to have one foot in the door and you’ve stepped into the Old World, redolent with garlic, cheese, olive oil, salami and so many other heady scents of home cooking, Siciliana style.

Photo credit: hanako@flickr.com

The front half of the room, which is the actual grocery store, is a treasure trove for aficionadi della cucina italiana, especially those who revel in its preparation. As generations passed, shelf space became so premium that the store’s inventory began expanding vertically instead of horizontally, forcing customers to carefully squeeze their way through tight aisles between tall shelves and display cases of imported Italian foodstuffs. In addition to tins and jars of peppers, olives, squid, anchovies, biscotti and more, you’ll find boxes of imported pasta, cases of salamis and cheese, loose beans and lentils sold from the barrel and even the stray dried stockfish from time to time.

At its core, Central may be an old fashioned groceria, but the true heartbeat of the place is the muffuletta, the city’s signature Italian sandwich, the creation of which is generally accredited to the store.

The muffuletta is named for its bread, a crusty round loaf eight or nine inches in diameter. The loaf is stuffed with Cappicola ham, Genoa salami, mortadella and provolone, but what gives the enormous sandwich its true character is the olive salad that’s piled upon the meat and cheese. It is sold and served in quarters, and a workable rule of thumb is that two of those quarters will usually satisfy anyone this side of a famished longshoreman.

Olive salad hearkens back to the days when olives were shipped in wooden barrels of brine. In transit, and even in the groceria, the weight of the olives in the top of the barrel would crush a number of those at the bottom, rendering them undesirable to the consumers of the day, who were willing to pay full olive price for full olives. Enterprising grocers would add garlic cloves, capers, parsley and oregano to the broken olives, chop up produce that had gone unsold, and then mix it all in olive oil and red wine vinegar. The result was not only a savory condiment, but also a highly efficient way to make use of inventory otherwise going to waste.

Although olive salad is its most common name, people with a bent for linguistics may find it interesting to know that for the better part of the Twentieth Century, the concoction was generally referred to as “wop salad.” While modern cultural sensitivity and political correctness have more or less relegated the term to the lexicological scrap heap, it still appears on some old-line New Orleans menus (most notably at Rocky & Carlo’s, a workingman’s Italian restaurant in the blue-collar suburb of Chalmette).

To accommodate rushes of business at noontime and the end of the day, the staff at Central Grocery fabricates muffulettas throughout the day. Surprisingly, to a great many people, the longer the sandwich sits unsold, the better it becomes because the olive oil in the salad soaks into the bread itself. Yes, it is messy, but eating a quarter of a muffuletta without having something spill out of the sandwich is an art few people have ever mastered. The most practical solution is to grab as many paper napkins as you can get away with, wear old clothes and dig in.

The back half of Central provides some very limited areas for eating in, but it is a cramped and soulless place, an obvious afterthought that commandeered valuable and profitable merchandise shelf space.

Far more pleasant it is to pick up a muffuletta and a Barq’s root beer, walk a block to the levee and enjoy an impromptu picnic on a bench, watching the ships glide by and feeling the breezes of the Great American River. Or walk two blocks up Decatur Street, grab one of the benches in the circle surrounding the statue of “Old Hickory” in Jackson Square, and listen for the bells of the city’s iconic St. Louis Cathedral.

One thing you might want to keep in mind before you enter Central Grocery for the first time is that the people who work there are an inexplicably surly bunch of characters, who take all aspects of play out of playful gruffness as if intent on elevating rudeness to an art form. In fact, it’s easier to find more convivial Italian gents on the losing side of a soccer match, driving taxis in Rome or brandishing cabbages when the tenor hits a clinker. Why this may be so eludes me, but I find the best way to get around this is, that when they treat me as if I’m nothing but another handful of cash, to ignore them right back.

Before you ask, yes, Central Grocery has muffulettas tightly wrapped in plastic and butcher paper and ready to go back to the airport with you. It is hardly uncommon to be standing somewhere in a Louis Armstrong New Orleans International concourse and catch a whiff of garlicky olive salad in someone’s purse or carry-on as it passes by. (I can’t help but wonder what the life expectancy is of a fragrant muffuletta in a jam-packed airplane that’s sitting on the tarmac waiting in line to take off or, even worse, for one of those mysterious delays that last an eternity or two.)

Along those same lines, quart jars of olive salad are available for those who don’t want the temptation of a whole sandwich under their nose. Perhaps it’s just me, but for years, I used to carry them home only to discover the seal was loose enough that oil seeped out onto the label and down the side of the jar, so you might want to make sure the seal is good and tight before you leave the store.

Like most dishes created by New Orleans eateries, the muffuletta has fostered a multitude of imitators not only in the city, bur regionally. Many feature a slight variation on ingredients; Napoleon House serves theirs warm, Liuzza’s on Bienville Street serves a “Frenchuletta” on French bread instead of the traditional Italian loaf, and a few years ago even Emeril Lagasse developed his own muffuletta pizza recipe. As happens in such cases, some of these have attracted their own followings, but those seeking the real deal need only sample l’originale at Central.

And feel free to snarl right back at the surly pagliacco behind the counter.

Central Grocery Company, 923 Decatur Street (between Dumaine & St. Philip Streets)

Open Tuesday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Major credit cards accepted

Telephone: (504) 523-1620

No website

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Charlie's Steak House and The Dry Dock Bar & Cafe

Photo courtesy: charliessteakhousenola.com

Charlie’s Steak House

That’s not to say there’s anything inherently bad about the steaks, but it doesn’t take more than a bite or two to realize that the beef being served isn’t USDA Prime (or if it is, someone might want to think of standing the chef in front of a firing squad).

It took Charlie’s Steak House three years to re-open after Hurricane Katrina, during which time The Sensible One and I would check monthly to see if there was any word. Before the storm, Charlie’s had been a tattered, down-at-the-heels neighborhood place featuring okay food served with a cranky attitude. It was cheap and we were living on our paychecks, so there was a certain symbiosis to the arrangement.

When word got out that Charlie’s had reopened, we were overjoyed. We went, and we were disappointed.

Maybe our palates had become more sophisticated, or it could have been that our wallets had gained a little weight and we had started patronizing pricier places with better grades of steak.

Or it could have been that compared to the old dump, the new place had been spiffed up a little and was beginning to border on being the kind of restaurant I could take people I wanted to entertain, rather than unnerve.

After reconsidering it a little, however, I feel comfortable suggesting it to friends, albeit guardedly.

As an aficionado of tattered, threadbare places that surprise with good chow, then delight with reasonable checks, I am prone to outbursts of nostalgia, particularly when acts get cleaned up. To me, Cinderella was far more interesting as a beleaguered stepsister than a glass-slippered princess, the sudden prince was never as riveting as the cursed frog and Charlie’s was more enticing ramshackle than respectable.

That said, Charlie’s still exudes a raffish charm, starting with its menu or, to be more precise, lack of it. Once you are seated, your server will snarl something along the lines of, “Whaddya want?” Upon realizing that you’re a hopeless rookie, he or she will bark out, “We got the little T-bone, the big T-bone, the Charlie and we got the filet, so whaddya want?” You’re expected to know that the Charlie is a 32 oz. T-bone that drips over the side of the plate as well as what sides they offer, so who needs a menu? You say you do? “It’s been da same since Mr. Charlie Petrossi opened da door in 1932, so where’ve you been?”

The gruffness, of course, is part of the tradition and on occasion not sincere, but it serves to tell you that you’re not in a fancy place so you better not act like it.

Regarding the sides (and there are six of them), they are as old school steakhouse as everything else about the place – onion rings, potatoes au gratin, steak fries, salad, sautéed mushrooms and garlic bread. They are so good and the portions are so enormous I’ve started working on this idea that one night, I could pretend to be a vegetarian and only order side dishes, hoping they don’t toss me out into Dryades Street.

Very few New Orleanians would dispute the primacy of Charlie’s onion rings in the city and quite possibly far beyond. The salad greens are basic, B-flat iceberg lettuce, but they come engulfed in a blue cheese dressing blended with enough garlic to keep Italy operating for a month or two. The garlic bread is made the time-honored Italian way – buttered, studded with garlic cloves and broiled. Having gorged myself with onion rings, salad and bread every time I visit, I have yet to get around to the potatoes or mushrooms.

While the notion of going to a steakhouse for the sides instead of the main event may be unusual, it actually makes some kind of left-handed sense at Charlie’s, because, in fact, the sides are better than the steaks. That’s not to say there’s anything inherently bad about the steaks, but it doesn’t take more than a bite or two to realize that the beef being served isn’t USDA Prime (or if it is, someone might want to think of standing the chef in front of a firing squad). The steaks are most likely USDA Choice, generally on par with what is sold in a supermarket. It’s very good meat, but it’s just not up to the level of the top two percent (Prime), which is sold in so many “big boy” or “A” steakhouses in major American cities these days. But to Charlie’s everlasting credit, they don’t charge big boy prices for what they proudly put on the plate.

The crux of the story is that the quality grade of the beef is what keeps Charlie’s from becoming one of the small circle of elite steakhouses in a city that isn’t as well known for very good steak as it might be. But a major part of the true beauty of the place is that it doesn’t pretend to be what it isn’t.

Charlie’s is a good neighborhood steakhouse that serves a good steak dinner for a good steak price, and its lack of artifice may very well be one of the key reasons it’s been a going concern for nearly eighty years.

Consider the exceptional sides and being treated like an in-law as an added bonus.

Charlie’s Steak House, 4510 Dryades Street

(Between Napoleon Avenue and Valence Street)

Serving dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 – 9:30 p.m,

Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m.

Dark Monday and Tuesday

Reservations for Parties of Ten or More

Major Credit Cards Accepted

Telephone: (504) 895-9323

Website: www.charliessteakhousenola.com

Photo couresy: www.thedrydockcafe.com

The Dry Dock Café & Bar

It’s an unassuming place both outside and in.

At the foot of Canal Street, next to the Aquarium of the Americas, you’ll find the entrance to the Canal Street Ferry, one of my favorite places to kill a spring or autumn afternoon.

It’s not much of a ride, taking about ten minutes to chug across the Mississippi River to the West Bank, and the terminal, particularly on the New Orleans side, is a depressing specimen of municipal architecture. An industrial, institutional pile, the first thing the terminal makes me think about is how out of place it looks in a city devoted to pleasures of the senses.

Once you board the ferry on its upper deck, negotiate your way down the steep stairway to the auto deck and make your way to the uncovered end of the boat. It seems that even on days when the heat covers the city like a wet wool blanket, there’s still a breeze on the mighty Mississippi, and as the wind tousles your hair, you have the opportunity to lean against a rail and behold one of the better views of the city. The historic French Market and the triple spires of St. Louis Cathedral define the Vieux Carré and to their left rise the towers of downtown. A bevy of ships pass by, from barges to tankers to cruise ships, and even the sternwheeler Natchez glides past like a wedding cake on the waters with her rolling paddles and piping calliope. It is truly a way to start feeling at one with the 300-year history of New Orleans and the river that has forever been her lifeblood.

Better still, it doesn’t cost a nickel.

Once you disembark, you’ll be in Algiers Point, a town that was born in New Orleans’ infancy. Over time, Algiers Point has been a railhead, home to shipyards, naval stations and even the Civil War powder magazine for her sister city. Until the “Crescent City Connection” bridge was completed in 1958, the Point was most accessible by the ferry and remained a small and sleepy town. That small town character remains today, when one can walk the levee around the tightest bend in the Mississippi River, look one way and see a shimmering cityscape, then look the other direction into a neighborhood dotted with Victorian era housing and an unforeseen number of steeples.

Down the hill from the ferry terminal is the Dry Dock Café & Bar, a blue gray frame building that looks like it could be equally at home in a small town along the New England or Chesapeake coasts. There are striped awnings on the windows and three outdoor tables under patio umbrellas. It’s an unassuming place both outside and in.

There’s a small bar in front and a medium sized restaurant behind it. A quick glance at the bar leads one to believe that the house drink is most likely bottled beer. The restaurant side of the room is green and covered with décor that appears to have straggled in one item at a time compliments of regular customers, and then filled in by friendly breweries. In the corner is a tall spiral stairwell going who knows where.

The Dry Dock’s menu is longer than one might expect, but it isn’t all that ambitious. It’s mainly pub grub, Louisiana style – po’boys, gumbo, salads, about a dozen lunch plates and a list of bar munchies designed to keep the deep fat fryer busy. Were it not for the food’s New Orleans accent, the Dry Dock could be a nondescript bar in most small coastal towns on any American coast.

Truth be told, I don’t give a damn. The Dry Dock is a friendly, comfortable bar that serves food with a local flavor, and there are times when no one wants anything more than just that. The old Chinese proverb is, “The journey is the reward,” and the Dry Dock makes a genial halfway house on one of the city’s most pleasant outings.

The Dry Dock Café & Bar, 133 Delaronde Street

(One block from the Algiers Point Ferry)

Restaurant Hours, 11 a.m.-10 p.m; Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Bar hours: 11 a.m. - until...

Major Credit Cards Honored

Telephone: (504) 361-8240

Website: www.thedrydockcafe.com