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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, November 28, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Brocato's Eat Dat

For the most part, it’s Cajun plate lunch fare and it’s damn good.

It seems that whenever a shoestring restaurateur is knocked for lack of décor or ambience, the inevitable response is a growled, “You don’t eat da atmosphere, buddy.”

Well, maybe not, but no one in their right mind would ever deny that the vibe of the room itself is a vital component of any total, holistic restaurant event. Imagine, if you will, a bag burger in a room filled with sparkling chandeliers, or perhaps a terrine of pâté de fois gras being dished up in a hash house.

Over the years, such stunts have been attempted any number of times across America by “creative” restaurateurs with predictable results. Such juxtaposition of cuisine and ambience is more often an exercise in self-conscious eccentricity than genuine creativity and most diners see the prank for what it is, a one-time joke. Yawn.

Now and then, however, someone comes along and makes such a juxtaposition work, even though in the case of Brocato’s Eat Dat in East New Orleans, I suspect such a serendipitous result is more a case of under-capitalization than intent.

Had I not heard some buzz about good food coming out of the Eat Dat kitchen, I would have never driven the eleven miles or so to look for the place. After all, East New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish are hardly hotbeds of the city’s restaurants, and beyond Rocky & Carlo’s in Chalmette, most locals would be hard-pressed to name a restaurant in the area. Hell, most of then probably couldn’t even name Rocky & Carlo’s despite the fact the macaroni and cheese there is the stuff of local epicurean legend.

Consider the restaurant’s ambience or perhaps the lack thereof. To get to Eat Dat, you drive alongside a drainage canal in a middle- to lower-middle class neighborhood until you reach what appears to be a most unsuccessful, white cement block strip center. There’s a photographer’s studio at the back of the center, some space available at the front, and somewhere near the middle are two generic doors under a vinyl banner. A discount store neon OPEN sign flickers behind one of the door windows.

You enter a relatively large dining hall, large enough that the institutional tables and chairs are widely spread out to fill two-thirds of the high-ceilinged room. Next to the front door is a whiteboard where the day’s specials are scrawled, and it’s the first time you even get an inkling that the place might be far better than it looks. A second inkling comes when you look around only to discover that the place is crawling with more cops than a raid at a topless club. While The Sensible One and I were having lunch one day, nine – count ‘em, nine – of New Orleans’ finest came through for either sit-down or carry-out lunches. The city’s boys and girls in blue may not know how to do a lot about crime, but they do know how to eat and walking in on a bevy of them is a definite harbinger of good eats to come.

While some restaurateurs would never spare a single dime decorating their dining rooms, I’m not altogether sure that Eat Dat owner/chef Troy Brocato even forked over the first nickel. The walls are covered with whitish wallpaper that was probably part of the landlord’s low cost build-out. A cluster of fleur de lis bric-a-brac hangs higgledy-piggledy on one of the walls. Were it suggested that the room has any visual center at all, it would come from a blown-up sticker of a Saints helmet not unlike those found in the bedrooms of pre-adolescent schoolboys.

The floor is covered with a gray, industrial grade carpeting that seems better suited to a window-peeping private eye’s office, and the whole room features a noticeably high drop ceiling studded with fluorescent lights. Taken as a whole, the dining room looks not so much like a restaurant as it does the suicide note of a hopelessly inept decorator.

Despite the fact that such harsh lighting and uninspired décor provide a natural showcase for the unavoidable spills, drops, oops and other calamities of an intrinsically messy industry, the dining room at Brocato’s Eat Dat is boot camp spotless. Such cleanliness, I think, is not merely the predictable residue of diligence, but rather testament to a ferocious pride that starts with Troy Brocato and runs all the way through his small staff to the guy who bags the garbage and schleps it to the dumpster.

Brocato’s Eat Dat is on its surface a nondescript neighborhood place in a nondescript neighborhood, but at its very heart exists an unexpected confluence of heritage and birthright that manifests itself on steaming platters of classic Louisiana cuisine, the recipes for many of which start with the simple words, “First, make a roux.”

New Orleanians not in the know make the honest and understandable mistake of assuming that Brocato is a scion of the Sicilian family of confectioners whose gelati, cannoli and biscotti have been revered in the city for over a century. In truth, owner/chef Troy Brocato is an Opelousas lad, part of another family that has become synonymous with Cajun heritage cooking and its fusion into the Louisiana culinary mainstream – the Prudhommes. In point of fact, Troy Brocato’s great-uncle is the legendary Paul Prudhomme, creator of blackened redfish in his celebrated K-Paul’s restaurant and generally regarded as the godfather of updated Louisiana cuisine.

Brocato worked for thirteen years in his great-uncle’s Chartres Street kitchen, where chef Prudhomme, and later Paul Miller, always emphasized both consistency and adherence to the fundamentals of Louisiana heritage cuisine. The idea of Prudhomme as mentor is nothing new. Frank Brigtsen, whose eponymous restaurant is considered one of the city’s best, was the first chef to work alongside Prudhomme when K-Pail’s first opened for dinner. Before Emeril Lagasse became a celebrity chef, he had the good fortune to follow Prudhomme as executive chef at Commander’s Palace, where the foundation of Lagasse’s reputation can be found in the recipes Prudhomme developed and left behind.

While Brocato certainly learned the essentials of his craft in the Prudhomme atelier, like Brigtsen and Lagasse, he is no slavish acolyte to the K-Paul’s canon. The food at Brocato’s seems to feature fewer pepper blends than that at K-Paul’s, but whatever it may lack in zing is counter balanced by a depth and smokiness that serves as another level, a lower base upon which other flavors are built.

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the daily menus at Borcato’s. They’re computer print-outs on plain white copier paper and their language is simple and unadorned; adjectives are not sprinkled as freely as superfluous condiments in the menus of more affected restaurants. This straightforward honesty sets both the table and tone for whatever you order off the smallish menu.

The regular menu features seven items changed daily, and a second sheet of paper lists anywhere from six to eight daily specials. For the most part, it’s Cajun plate lunch fare and it’s damn good. There’s fried catfish served with crawfish etouffées; Cajun rabbit jambalaya with sauce piquant; bronzed chicken; blackened redfish; shrimp and roasted corn cheese grits; a pork chop of some kind; the usual suspects in restaurants with roots in the bayous and swamps.

There’s always a po’boy, and on Saturday nights, they often feature barbecue specials.

Two particular dishes deserve special mention: the classic barbecue shrimp, and the crab cakes served over cheese ravioli in a crawfish cream sauce.

In New Orleans, buttery barbecue shrimp is as much a mainstay in any local chef’s repertoire as Amazing Grace is to a hymnal. Created in the 1950s at Pascals’ Manale and re-thought by Prudhomme during his watch at Commander’s Palace, it’s remarkably simple: shrimp either baked (Manale) or sautéed (Prudhomme) with butter, spices and seafood stock. Brocato’s take on this old standby isn’t as spicy as many, but has a deeper flavor than most, suggesting that he works his sauce longer before adding the shrimp. While the gustatory variations of the Eat Dat version may not stray far from the culinary roots of the original, the result is one that easily stands side-by-side with the dish’s most celebrated and often cited presentations.

When one considers the three most prominent provenances of New Orleans cuisine – Cajun, Creole and Italian – Brocato’s crab cake entrée is one of the most successful integrations of the three into a single dish. The fried crab cake pays homage to the deep-frying tradition of the more rural Cajuns; the ravioli is, of course, Italian; and the buttery crawfish cream sauce could be used as an exemplar of traditional Creole technique. In all the restaurants of every ethnic background throughout a city justifiably famous for unique cuisine, very few dishes are served that so emphatically succeed in creating such an indigenous hybrid as Brocato accomplishes with his crab cakes.

In the face of Brocato’s well-crafted main courses, perhaps it’s splitting hairs to point out that the house salads offer room for substantial improvement. While there’s nothing inherently bad about the ingredients or their preparation, the only thing that stands out about them is their complete banality. Boring iceberg lettuce and dressings that taste no different than those poured from oversized food service jars make inadequate fanfares for the dishes to come. Many years ago, I castigated a restaurateur about his chintzy, unimaginative salad, only to be told he did it intentionally so people didn’t fill up on salad before the entrees arrived. It’s perhaps the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard from a restaurateur, but until Troy Brocato fixes his salads, it’s one he may want to commit to memory.

When all is said and done, I like the hell out of Brocato’s Eat Dat, but I readily admit to having a soft spot for out-of-the way places where the décor can most politely be called “haphazard,” the ambience is decidedly downscale and the food can hold its own with any white tablecloth joint in town.

Nothing lasts forever, of course. When a kitchen is putting out food as good as Brocato’s Eat Dat at about half the cost of places in the French Quarter, word will inevitably get around. At that point, Troy Brocato will have to look deep into his soul – and his bankbook – and decide how he personally chooses to define success. Here’s one hungry sinner who hopes he makes a wise choice.

Brocato’s Eat Dat

Louisiana Heritage Cuisine

8480 Morrison Road, East New Orleans

(Approximately 11.0 miles by auto from the

corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.)

Lunch served Tuesday – Sunday, 10:30 am – 4:00 pm

Dinner served Thursday – Sunday, 5:30 PM – 9:00 pm

VISA and MasterCard accepted, no reservations

Telephone: (504) 309-3465