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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

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

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