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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

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Middendorf's


The place is great, but I’m not sure it’s worth the fortune an eighty-mile round trip cab ride would cost. If you’re an absolute catfish connoisseur, you might go anyway, because an awful lot of Southerners consider the Middendorf’s Special to be the gold standard for catfish.

The two-lane highway looks curiously antiquated today, but until 1981 when the 21-mile bridge was completed, it was the major federal highway leading into New Orleans from Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. U.S. 51 still runs in a mostly straight line through the swamp between Ponchatoula (Louisiana’s strawberry capital) and LaPlace (the state’s sausage capital), but these days it runs in the shadows of the “double nickel” (Interstate 55).

When the interstate highway system started bypassing towns and cities, it was the death knell for countless mom-and-pop cafes that had flourished on America’s roadsides for the half century between Henry Ford’s development of an automobile affordable to the emerging middle class and the advent of cloverleaf exchanges and entrance ramps.

For the descendents of Louis and Josie Middendorf, it impacted the family business like an oil well coming in. The eponymous family restaurant had been doing well enough for its first 48 years of existence, but once the main highway stopped running past the front door and the entrance to the interstate where cars whizzed by overhead was opened ¾ of a mile up the road, the dip they expected never occurred. In fact, the reverse happened. Business boomed.

Directed by a half dozen mileage billboards starting just south of Jackson, Mississippi, cars pulled off I-55 at the Manchac exit, sampled the food and before long the business started growing rapidly through word of mouth. The chatter hasn’t stopped for 30 years.

The reason is catfish, a good portion of it fished out of Lake Maurepas (literally across the highway from the restaurant) plus nearby rivers and bayous. Now, fried catfish is hardly an earthshaking idea in a part of the country where it’s been served for as long as there’s been fish, batter “fixin’s” and cooking oil, but Josie Middendorf put her own twist on the old Southern favorite.

Taking a razor sharp knife, she sliced the filets as thin as she possibly could before battering and frying. The result is the “Middendorf’s Special,” a plate full of crisp fish so thin it curls up in the frying, served with hush puppies, slaw and fries. (The other named “Middendorf’s Special” is exactly the same, except that the catfish is cut thick instead of thin. Go figure.) I’ve never taken a clipboard for notes nor asked anyone, but my pseudoscientific method of gathering data, better known to most as eavesdropping, suggests that thin fish outsells its thicker brethren by a 2-to-1 ratio.

As I write these words, I am reflecting on the dozens of times I’ve stopped at Middendorf’s over the years, and I think I may have ordered something else (probably gumbo) once, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Friends who have tried items from the rest of the lengthy menu insist the quality of everything is impeccable and what I’ve seen carried past me seems to bear that out.

One item I have perpetually missed is the blue crabs. Boiled by the dozen, they are a visual delight to behold when they pass by my table, steaming. I keep meaning to order them, but creature of habit that I am, I don’t even open the menu anymore and order the “thin fish special” without thinking. About the time I’m halfway through, a tray full of crabs passes by and then I remember what I forgot.

From the highway, Middendorf’s looks like an old roadhouse, which I suppose it technically is, but the three inside rooms have the feeling of a family restaurant. With stained and lacquered wooden walls and institutional furniture, the place isn’t much to look at. At one point, the walls were dotted with taxidermically mounted specimens of oversized crawfish, giving the place a bayou ambience, but the critters are long gone. Oddly enough, the more interesting accessories are the door handles going out of the front and, of all places, into to the rest rooms; they’re brass alligators, approximately a foot tall, and whenever I see them, I wonder how many other visitors have walked away from the restaurant with equally larcenous ideas.

A second restaurant has been built next door, but isn’t generally opened except for Sundays or times when the overflow justifies such an action. It’s not uncommon to see a tour bus or two in front of what is essentially an annex.

Unless you’re coming to New Orleans by automobile, the chances are pretty good you’ll decide to skip the forty-mile, northwesterly drive from the French Quarter to Middendorf’s, and to be honest, you probably should. The place is great, but I’m not sure it’s worth the fortune an eighty-mile round trip cab ride would cost. If you’re an absolute catfish connoisseur, you might go anyway, because an awful lot of Southerners consider the Middendorf’s Special to be the gold standard for catfish. You certainly wouldn’t be alone; despite the drive, Middendorf’s is enormously popular with New Orleanians who regard the journey as simply another facet of the entire adventure.

Middendorf’s does an enormous volume of business, particularly for a mom-and-pop joint on a sparsely populated strip of two-lane highway. Consequently, the interval between the waitress taking your order and bringing the steaming food to your table is short enough to rival the burger delivery time in a New Orleans fast food franchise. While the timing may be comparable, the quality is anything but; the quality of Middendorf’s food, for what it is, has few peers in all of Louisiana.

Finally, there’s something reassuring about driving around the lake and across the marshes before arriving in a small town, elevation of three feet, where houses on stilts rise out of the backwaters, most people fish for a livelihood and the easiest way to get around is by boat. The town, such as it is, is known by two names – Akers and Manchac – and I could find neither one in the census. There are more people than I can count on my fingers and toes alone, but I wouldn’t need a lot of friends to find enough digits, or much time for that matter, to take a census of my own. Outside Middendorf’s, there’s a beer joint, a bait shop and not much else. The buzzing interstate highway immediately overhead, and within feet of Highway 51, is a world away.

It’s the kind of place where a fish house should rise above the marshes, and thank God one does. When all is said and done, Middendorf’s also rises above most other restaurants for miles and miles around. It’s a thin slice of America you really don’t want to miss.


Middendorf’s, 30160 Hwy 51 South in Akers, LA

Lunch and Dinner served Wednesday – Sunday, 10:30 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.

Most major credit cards accepted. No reservations.

Telephone: 985-386-6666

Website: www. middendorfsrestaurant.com

Images courtesy of middendorfsrestaurant.com

Monday, August 16, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Venezia


Vieni, ordine, mangiare, divertirsi, salario, congedo.

(Come, order, eat, enjoy, pay, scram.)

New Orleans has its own culinary patois, an often curious jumble of misnamed items (barbecued shrimp, Bordelaise sauce), mangled pronunciations (“my-nez” for mayonnaise, “praw-leen” for praline) and odd names that start to make sense if you think about them long enough. My favorite of the latter group is “red gravy.”

Chances are, you know it as “spaghetti sauce,” maybe “marinara” if you come from a city with a large Italian population, or maybe even “red sauce” if you grew up in the heartland. But in New Orleans, red gravy it is, and I like the name almost as much as I like the sauce.

There’s something earthy about the term “red gravy.” It’s what Stanley Kowalski would tell Stella he spilled on his bowling shirt. While it certainly can be exquisitely prepared by a capocuoco di cuicina in a tony trattoria, you can also buy it in quart jars at the supermarket.

The reason for writing about red gravy is not to wax rhapsodic about its flavor or spectrum of varieties, but rather to put one of my favorite restaurants in proper context. That restaurant is the original Venezia location on Carrolton at Canal, and the best way to describe it is as a red gravy place.

Venezia has been around since 1957, and is reputed to have been a closer-to-home substitute for Mosca’s, the legendary roadhouse that was used as a gathering place by alleged Mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello. There is no doubt that Venezia was considerably closer to the Marcello mansion in Metairie, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether the restaurant actually has a scandalous history or if that’s just a legend that current management allows to go unchallenged, because it’s good for business. At any rate, there were very few changes made to the place during its first 48 years, and if Katrina hadn’t flooded it, the place might still look like someone broke the clock back during the Eisenhower administration.

New Orleans, of course, cherishes its older institutions with fervor, and it’s apparent with your first look at Venezia. The building is a nondescript white box, like so many old establishments in the city. Above the building length canopy, which protects guests from inclement weather, is a vintage neon sign reading, “Venezia/Pizza Pie/Italian Food.” How long has it been since you’re heard anyone under the age of sixty mention a “pizza pie,” let alone seen it glowing on a restaurant’s neon?

Once you go inside, there’s no foyer to speak of and you’ll find yourself standing in the middle of the dining room. No one seems to mind, hell, no one seems to notice, but before long you’ll either be lead to your table or, depending on the crowd, to the bar in the back of the house for a wait that usually isn’t too long. Soon enough you’ll learn the reason for short waits is the speed with which the restaurant tries to turn over its tables.

The room is plain, and what little art there is on the walls consists mainly of clichĂ©d images of Italy. The tables are close together, close enough that on one of our first visits, The Sensible One and I couldn’t help but overhear a young couple on an obvious first date discussing restaurants (which is how we learned about the amazing fried bell pepper rings at the Franky & Johnny’s bar on Arabella Street).

One quick glance around the restaurant made it clear than not only were we the only non-residents in the room, but the way our ruddy Scotch-Irish complexions stood out, we were likely the only non-Italians as well.

When our server brought the menus, it was plain to see the restaurant’s emotional linkage to the substantial Italian immigration into New Orleans during the Nineteenth Century. Bordered by the red, green and white of the Italian tricolore was a line drawing of la Piazza di San Marco in Venezia (proper Italian for Venice) with a couple and their gondolier in a foreground gondola. I may reluctantly concede the image isn’t quite as hackneyed as a winking chef making the “okay” sign, but it’s certainly evocative of days gone by when the use of terms like “spaghetti house” and “pizza pie” were part of the everyday lexicon.

There are no surprises inside the Venezia menu, either. It’s no-nonsense Italian food: spaghetti, lasagna, veal parmigiana, eggplant and most of the other standard dishes people associate with home-style Italian. Even though the menu chooses to use the words “red sauce” instead of “red gravy,” Venezia isn’t fooling anybody with the possible exception of themselves. This is still a red gravy joint, the kind of neighborhood place where people bring mama, nonna and all the bambinos.

While the standard Italian fare is extremely good, albeit not terribly challenging, the pizza (pie) is outstanding. It comes in one size, fourteen inches cut into eight slices, and if you want something else, go somewhere else. The ingredients are what you’d expect, and the gimmick ingredient on the house special is a sprinkling of artichoke hearts.

When you order a pizza, don’t be surprised if your server isn’t terribly enthusiastic. The pizzas are prepped and cooked to order, a process that takes more time than the traditional Italian fare, and the longer the time a family spends at the table, the less often the table turns over, meaning the less money the server makes.

While the staff at Venezia will never utter the first disapproving word to a table of people who choose to linger or dawdle, don’t be surprised if you get the feeling they’d be just as happy if your were on your merry way. The truth is, they would be. A good slogan for the place, or at least an accurate one, might be: Come, order, eat, enjoy, pay, scram. It’s nothing personal, just business.

What ultimately makes Venezia worth a visit, more than its food or service or the room itself is its sheer authenticity. But be warned. The working class ambience will be charming to some, anathema to others. If you expect to be treated like visiting royalty in a restaurant, go somewhere else. If you’re willing to be treated like family, come on in.

You’ll soon come to realize that blue collar and red gravy are a couple of New Orleans’ most flavorful colors.

Venezia, 134 N. Carrolton Avenue (at Canal Street)

Open Wednesday – Friday, 11 a.m. –10 p.m.

Saturday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday, 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Reservations and all major credit cards accepted.

Telephone: 504- 488-7991

Website: www.venezianeworleans.com

Sunday, August 8, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Pascal's Manale

Pascal’s Manale

Considering that the provenance of New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp was a comedy of errors, it should come as no surprise that no one could agree upon the best way to cook it, either.

The name is misleading, the history appears to keep revising itself, no one seems to agree on how the dish is prepared and the most commonly asked question is, “What’s a Manale, anyway?”

Generally regarded as one of the iconic dishes in the entire New Orleans Creole-Italian repertoire, Barbecue Shrimp has absolutely nothing to do with barbecue in the way you probably know it. There’s no hickory or mesquite, the sauce isn’t tomato based and sweetened with either brown sugar or molasses, and people in Kansas City and Memphis (and Texas and the Carolinas) don’t argue about whose is best.

This much is known, or at least widely accepted, or maybe suspected:

New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp came into being sometime during the mid-1950s in the kitchen of an Italian family restaurant named Pascal’s Manale. Opened in 1913 by one Frank Manale, the Napoleon Avenue restaurant eventually found its way into the hands of Manale’s nephew, Pascal Radosta, who decided to rename the place after both of them.

Legend has it that on that fateful evening in the 50s, one of the regular customers named Vincent Sutro had just returned from a business trip to Chicago and started singing the praises of a dish he’d eaten there that, as far as he could remember, had shrimp, butter and a lot of pepper in it. He asked Pascal’s chef, Jake Radosta, if he could make some, and the chef said he could try.

Chef Radosta went into the kitchen, cooked up something that was as close as he could get to the fellow’s vague description and waited while the man tasted it. After a taste or two, the man said it wasn’t what he’d eaten in Chicago. It was better.

Owner Radosta decided to put it on the menu, where it’s stayed ever since. No one knows where the name came from. One guess was that this all happened at the point in time when the suburban backyard barbecuing craze was at its zenith and, despite being a misnomer, the name was coined to cash in on the fad. Whether that’s true or not, there is a delicious irony about a misrepresented recipe being given a misleading name and still becoming a New Orleans classic.

Considering that the provenance of New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp was a comedy of errors, it should come as no surprise that no one could agree upon the best way to cook it, either.
There are two leading schools of thought on the dish’s preparation and the advocates of each are pompously cocksure that they are correct. The first is that all the ingredients are mixed in a baking dish and put in the oven, and it would not surprise me to learn that this is how the dish was originally prepared in the kitchen at Pascal’s Manale. The alternative belief is that the whole process is accomplished in a cast iron skillet.

I have a sneaking hunch both factions are correct, based upon an item I read several years ago that claimed the dish’s widespread popularity actually occurred when it was reworked by Paul Prudhomme at his newly opened K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen.

Prudhomme is a notoriously fast chef well known for cooking with blazing heat at high speeds, and it seems logical that the creator of blackened redfish would rethink a time-honored recipe for ease and speed of preparation in a commercial kitchen.

In writing this, I wanted to be as accurate as possible, so I went to the Internet to do a comprehensive recipe search. There are dozens of them, including numerous ones claiming to be the original recipe, and these “authentic” guidelines cite both cooking techniques. Well, of course they do. All things considered, it wouldn’t be real barbecue shrimp if people could actually agree on its preparation.

But no matter which method of preparation is used, the results are so similar it takes a true culinary wizard to tell which method was employed. The four driving, traditional flavors are fresh Louisiana shrimp, an exceedingly generous amount of pepper, garlic and enough butter to make a cardiologist scream uncle. Varying recipes call for shrimp stock, Worcestershire, Italian herbs, mint sprigs, Tabasco, white wine, cream and even tomatoes. It is a remarkably flexible dish that readily accommodates any number of personal touches.

There is some disagreement (of course there is) of whether the Louisiana shrimp should be cooked beheaded, peeled and deveined or intact so the fat contained in the shrimp heads can be incorporated into the sauce.

Essential to any preparation is an abundance of crusty French bread to sop up the peppery butter sauce.

When you order barbecue shrimp at Pascal’s Manale, a bib is de rigueur. Peeling the shrimp is part of the process, and before the empty plate is taken away, your fingers will be butter-soaked, and possibly wet from licking them providing no one is looking. Of course you’ll look silly; every adult in a bib looks silly, so get over it. One of the latter meals my late father and I had together was at Pascal’s Manale, and all these years later, I treasure the memory of our laughing and pointing at each other in our stupid bibs.

Despite the restaurant’s age and success, it still retains the aura of a neighborhood, family place. Located on a corner in a shaded, residential area, Pascal’s is set in an unobtrusive building on Dryades Street, which also features an old-line steak house named Charlie’s, and an unusual structure originally built by the Mexican consulate that now is home to the city’s most discreet bed-and-breakfast, complete with clothing optional swimming pool.

From the street, you enter a large, wood-paneled waiting room that also houses the restaurant’s cocktail area and oyster bar. It’s a friendly, lively area, which is good because some people spend a considerable amount of time there. Like many New Orleans neighborhood places, Pascal’s has an unwritten policy of moving guests, even those with reservations, down the line when an old friend or regular decides to drop in – and with nearly a century under its belt, the restaurant has an impressive number of friends. While the waits are usually not inordinately long, a little patience is recommended, as are a cocktail and a dozen of the city’s better oysters.

There are two medium-sized dining rooms in the place, the motif of one leaning toward sports, and the other seemingly planned to be a “nice” family place, but somehow it ended up looking like the parlor in a cathouse.

Beyond the barbecue shrimp, the menu doesn’t stray far from the predictable -- some veal dishes, a couple of steaks, seafood grilled or fried. While the shrimp is certainly the headliner at Pascal’s, the other dishes are treated like anything other than afterthoughts. It’s a good kitchen, the kind anyone has the right to expect of a place that’s had nearly a century to work out the kinks.

While the dinnertime mood at Pascal’s is jovial, the bibs ludicrous, and the food quality hovering somewhere between very good and excellent, lunch at the restaurant offers one of the city’s exceptional bargains. A small loaf of French bread is hollowed out, filled with barbecue shrimp swimming in its peppery butter and served as a sandwich. While bibs are recommended, I’ve managed the sandwiches with a number of napkins and minimal wardrobe damage.

Summarizing Pascal’s Manale is a challenge, at least for me. The food is very, very good, but I can tick off a dozen places that offer better cooking without breaking a sweat. There’s a reason for that, and it afflicts several of the city’s more legendary kitchens. For more than fifty years, Pascal’s has been able to claim itself the originator of New Orleans barbecue shrimp, but with that title comes a tacit obligation not to vary one iota from the recipe as originally developed. In the meantime, innovative chefs have enjoyed an open field in which to tinker and tweak with the dish, and this has doubtlessly led to some improvements on the original.

Such a fate is not new; it has befallen such venerable culinary institutions as Oysters Rockefeller and soufflĂ© potatoes at Antoine’s, the muffuletta as created by Central Grocery Company, the charbroiled oysters developed at Drago’s and many others. It begs the question, at what point does a dish as originally developed become a museum piece, a culinary curiosity overshadowed by the creation of a chef enjoying the freedom to explore and innovate? The truth is, there’s often a very real difference between a dish that’s been invented and one that’s been perfected, but they are both of interest to the dedicated “foodie.”

For whichever reason you’d consider a visit to Pascal’s Manale, historical or hedonistic, chances are you won’t be disappointed.

Pascal’s Manale, 1838 Napoleon Avenue (at Dryades St.)

Lunch served Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Dinner served Monday through Saturday 5 p.m. until closing

Dark Sunday

All major credit cards honored

Reservations strongly recommended,

but not accepted for 5 or more at 7:30 or 8 p.m.

Telephone: 504-895-4877

Website: www.neworleansrestaurants.com/pascalsmanale