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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

1 comment:

  1. My wife an I had the wonderful pleasure of dining there on the 12th of August and we were blown away by the class of service and the quality of the food.We were seated promptly in what appeared to be a lavish private club. Now mind you I didn't have a pair of long pants with me, let alone a tie or jacket. I remarked to the wait staff that I felt under dressed.
    Now I have been going to New Orleans for upward of twenty years, for Mardi Gras. This was my first time to Dickie Brennan's Steak House. The Oysters McIlhenny were to die for and my steak melted in my mouth.
    If you go to New Orleans and do not try Dickie Brennan"s Steak House you will have missed the meal of your life.