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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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

New Orleans Dining: La Provence

La Provence is a study in understatement and that in itself is a refreshing departure from the hyper self-consciousness that seems to swirl around so many restaurants these days.

Driving forty miles to visit a greater New Orleans area restaurant that owes little of its culinary inspiration, ambience or sense of place to the city itself is perhaps a quirky endeavor for a visitor, yet in the case of La Provence, such a side trip borders on the irresistible.

The place itself feels like it would be more at home on a French roadside than its setting on a stick-straight stretch of wooded highway connecting two bedroom communities containing few features that might separate them from any other American suburb.

La Provence is now in its second generation, which is a story in itself. Opened well over a quarter century ago by chef Chris Keragiorgious, it was taken over upon his death by a young Marine veteran who had worked as one Keragiorgious’ apprentices after returning home from the Gulf War, and whose reputation would ultimately eclipse that of his mentor.

That young executive chef and now owner is John Besh, a local boy from neighboring Slidell, whose career track seems to run in eerie parallel with that of Emeril Lagasse. Besh’s first restaurant, August in the Central Business District of New Orleans, skyrocketed to success and was soon followed by a string of new restaurants. A superb cookbook followed, as did a cable network program, and questions have arisen whether Besh’s attention will become diluted by being spread across too many projects.

One of the intriguing aspects of Besh’s rise in culinary circles, particularly in New Orleans, is that while Lagasse seems to be content replicating his flagship restaurant’s success with minimal variations, Besh seems to be nudging the envelope of venue diversity. Consider that at this writing, Besh is running his freestanding flagship restaurant (August), a casino chophouse (Besh Steak), an Alsace-influenced hotel restaurant (Lüke) and its counterpart (also named Lüke) in San Antonio, another hotel restaurant with a rustic Italian motif (Domenica), and a burger/meatloaf/comfort food outlet in the National World War II Museum (The American Sector) as well as La Provence.

Along the way, Besh has been a staunch advocate of combining native Louisiana foodstuffs with French-inspired techniques to produce a localized bistro cuisine, probably a holdover from his days as an apprentice for Keragiorgious, who along with Pierre Lacoste were among the earliest champions of the culinary hybrid. Today, of course, it seems that almost every restaurant that covers its tables in white broadcloth describes itself as “Old World cuisine with Local Flair.” But to Besh’s everlasting credit, he carries the notion far past le cliché nouveau and puts it into committed practice, particularly at La Provence.

Ever since its earliest days as Keragiorgious’ backcountry atelier, a central feature of La Provence has been its herb garden, which guarantees not only freshness but also local authenticity. After taking the reins at La Provence, Besh installed his own Berkshire hog farm, where the hogs are bred and fed organic scraps from the kitchens of his restaurants, before being slaughtered and processed in Besh’s on-premises smokehouse. Every part of the hog is used somewhere in Besh’s growing empire, from feet being slow-cooked to create the pieds de conchon at Lüke, skin for cracklings used at August to the livers being used in the ramekins of pâté that grace every table inside neighboring La Provence.

Such devotion to centuries-old cooking techniques and hair-splitting attention to detail are no doubt contributors to Besh’s increasing cachet in national culinary circles, but when viewing La Provence as a whole instead of a corporate component, I find something re-assuring in the fact that such persnickety steps are never mentioned. One of the pure joys of La Provence, at least for The Sensible One and me, is its lack of fussiness or Gallic posturing. The wait staff doesn’t ooze blatantly fake chumminess and the everyday chef de cuisine remains anonymous instead of being the reigning centerpiece in a cult of personality. La Provence is a study in understatement and that in itself is a refreshing departure from the hyper self-consciousness that seems to swirl around so many restaurants these days.

When I first pull into the restaurant’s parking lot, my internal clock readjusts itself to a gentler pace and in the seconds it takes to walk through the trellised archway and the small front door, my frame of mind has become that of an unhurried sightseer on holiday in a sunlit corner of France. There is a cozy waiting room inside with comfortable furniture and French magazines to thumb though, a pleasant enough place for a short wait and perhaps an aperitif to stimulate the appetite before being led to your table.

There are a couple of small dining rooms on either side of a crackling, whitewashed fireplace in the main restaurant. The ceilings are low and the yellow ochre walls remain mostly unadorned. Arched openings along the walls afford you with a view of a large barroom with another fireplace, a grand piano and little furniture on the Oriental rugs, leading me to believe the room sees more use for wedding receptions and private parties. French doors open onto a patio and fountain. Overall, the room has the air of a large villa that has been transformed into a small inn.

Though the main business at La Provence is dinner served Wednesday through Sunday evenings, The Sensible One and I are partial to Sunday brunch, particularly on drab, drizzly days that can only be warmed by a fireplace, robust fare and a bottle of steadfast Burgundy. In fact, on numerous trips over the past decade, we have planned our New Orleans arrival to follow on the heels of a dawdling brunch Provençal.

The food is unfussy French in the finest sense of both words. On a recent visit, The Sensible One started with a roasted chestnut ravioli finished with brown butter, sage and crispy ham, followed by jumbo Louisiana shrimp and butternut squash risotto with Meyer lemon and sage. Her decision was quick compared to mine, as I agonized over choices including Bouillabaisse, swordfish picatta, blue crab bisque, quail gumbo and a “pissaladière” (a warm pizza of onions, anchovies and olives). I finally decided to keep with close to home roots by ordering the Creole turtle soup, followed by a traditional Louisiana slow-cooked cochon du lait, which included braised shoulder, crisp belly and seared tenderloin served with haricorts verts and oven-roasted tomatoes. There’s no reason to try and string superlatives; it was all, in a word, superb, as was the apple tart we shared for dessert.

Were it only for the dissimilarities in the restaurants he creates, Besh would be a chef/entrepreneur worth keeping an eye on, but he brings a lot more to the party. Still in his mid-forties and blessed with frat boy good looks, a shaggy mop of hair and an engaging enthusiasm, Besh is a natural for television. Indeed, several years ago he finished a hair’s-breadth second to Michael Symon on the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef series, and in 2010 launched a series of his own, Inedible to Incredible on The Learning Channel. Far more telegenic and less inclined to hijack center stage at the expense of his guests than Emeril Lagasse, whose early career Besh seems to almost channel, many industry insiders seem to believe that the future is as much in front of Besh as it is behind Lagasse.

If Besh continues to grow into a national personality to the point his commitments put more pressure on his time and attention than his New Orleans activities require, it will be a great loss to one of America’s premier cities’ culinary landscapes.

To realize how much of a loss that would be, one only has to drive forty miles from downtown New Orleans to savor the near miracles that occur when home-grown ingredients meet a reverence for time-honored cooking principles under the watchful eyes of John Besh. One need go no further than La Provence.

La Provence

Louisiana French

25020 Highway 190

Big Branch, Louisiana

(Approximately 41 miles from the intersection of

Canal Street, Royal Street and St. Charles Avenue)

Dinner served Wednesday through Sunday evenings

Bruch served Sunday

Reservations are recommended and credit cards are honored

Telephone: (985) 626-7662

Website: www.laprovencerestaurant.com

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Orleans Dining: Slider Bob Discovers Willie Mae's Scotch House

To the horror of hidebound traditionalists,
who adventurously made their way to Tremé
when Willie Mae’s still wallowed in obscurity,
there have been (gasp!) changes made.

It was more a matter of luck than good planning when I found my old pal “Slider” Bob on the other end of the ringing telephone, asking me the name of the fried chicken place I’m always raving about.

The name of the place is Willie Mae’s Scotch House and it’s on a dicey street corner in the Tremé section of New Orleans, the oldest African American suburb in the United States and still an area where urban re-gentrification has yet to gain a meaningful foothold.

Slider had a delivery to make across the Mississippi River on Algiers Point, and rather than give him directions, it was easier to ask if he had an empty passenger seat. All he had to say was that he did, and that was that. It was a cloudless morning with a hint of spring in it and the lure of lunch at Willie Mae’s was far more compelling than the prospect of a day wrangling nouns and verbs in advance of an approaching deadline.

To understand the appeal of such a slothful day, you should understand a little about Slider and a lot about Willie Mae’s.

I can think of no better advertisement for reincarnation than the possibility of coming back for another lifetime go-round as Slider Bob. He’s bald, middle-aged, undemanding and equally unassuming. He loves good food, finds it everywhere he happens to be, yet has shown the iron will to give up enough of it to lose sixty pounds without cutting a single drop from his prodigious consumption of beer.

Willie Mae Seaton opened the doors to her “Scotch House” in 1957, and proceeded to run it for the next 48 years in relative obscurity. Originally a neighborhood bar, the booze was eventually elbowed out of the way by food. Overshadowed in terms of both visibility and history by Dooky Chase’s restaurant one block away, Willie Mae’s remained more focused on feeding the neighborhood while Chase’s built its name by feeding the New Orleans civil rights movement, for which the restaurant served as a major meeting place.

Despite its backstreet location in a high crime neighborhood, Willie Mae’s had something going for it: namely, fried chicken. New Orleans has always been a fried chicken town (the Popeye’s chain was founded here, for heaven’s sake), and any discussion of whose is best can serve as the preamble to a protracted argument. Every place that fries chicken wants to put their name into the discussion, of course, but among the places most often mentioned are Dooky Chase’s, Fiorella’s in the French Quarter, Lil’ Dizzy’s on Esplanade and, of course, Willie Mae’s Scotch House.

It seems that every New Orleans restaurant has both a “secret ingredient” and a determination to never reveal it, and Willie Mae’s is no exception. If you buy into the legend (and why not?), you’ll discover that Willie Mae passed down her closely guarded secret only to her great-granddaughter, Kerry, who runs the restaurant to this day. In a National Public Radio interview, Kerry let it slip that the secret was using a “wet batter” and salt and pepper as the only spices. This was all well and good until people started trying to duplicate the recipe at home with predictably unsuccessful results.

The enigma of the recipe aside, word of Willie Mae Seaton’s fried chicken began to slowly spread across the city. Had the Scotch House been located somewhere other than Tremé, there’s little doubt that fame would have come quicker. New Orleans can be a very odd town, in more ways than those that are obvious. While talking about places to eat is seemingly the city’s favorite sport (even more so than their beloved Saints), a lot of people have a tendency to clam up when asked about their favorite restaurant, particularly when said place isn’t conventional. It’s as if talking about a place will cause it to suddenly fall prey to the curse of mediocrity.

Buzz about Willie Mae’s fried chicken spread at a speed that could politely be called “glacial,” but spread it did, and in the spring of 2005, Willie Mae’s Scotch House was cited as one of “America’s Classics,” a special designation for outstanding regional restaurants and cuisine in the ultra-prestigious James Beard Awards. That accolade even caught the attention of Slider, who began hinting that a road trip to a chicken joint sounded like a more than acceptable adventure (provided, of course, there would be plenty of beer).

The cat was out of the bag.

Lines got long, then longer.

Business boomed.

And five short months later, Katrina blew into town and the whole place was under water.

What happened next bespeaks volumes about the kindness of Deep South strangers. With the spirit of an Amish country barn raising, people united only by appetites for good food and good works rolled up their sleeves, picked up often-unfamiliar tools and pitched in. Spearheaded by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a ragtag coalition of writers, chefs and everyday chowhounds dedicated to protecting the culinary traditions of the American South, an army of volunteers spent more than a year of weekends repairing and restoring the Scotch House.

While the James Beard Award had made the restaurant famous to a small, passionate band of foodophiles, designation by Food Network for having “the best fried chicken in America,” plus regular mentions from media über-chefs, including John Besh and Emeril Lagasse, firmly plantedWillie Mae’s in the epicurean spotlight.

Since reopening, Willie Mae’s Scotch House has grown from a phenomenon shrouded in whispers into a full-fledged institution. Print ads touting honors now appear in magazines catering to both visitors and the local entertainment/lifestyle market. Taxis regularly disgorge hordes of French Quarter tourists at the door. The Tremé neighborhood has become temporarily trendy due to an eponymous series on Home Box Office. Beer, which disappeared from the place years ago, is once again for sale. After a half-century policy of “cash only,” they now honor most major plastic. To the horror of hidebound traditionalists, who adventurously made their way to Tremé when Willie Mae’s still wallowed in obscurity, there have been (gasp!) changes made.

Slider and I pulled up to the non-descript, white plank building that houses Willie Mae’s at about 1:30 on a weekday when business in the French Quarter was lighter than usual. Roughly a dozen diners were milling in front of the plain white door. Occasionally, the front door would open and a group of two or four of diners would jostle its way though those of us clustered on the sidewalk. Invariably one of them would tell us it was worth the wait.

The doorway at Willie Mae’s is interesting in and of itself since, instead of a host taking names or a formal waiting line, it runs on an ersatz honor system. Essentially, once you no longer see anyone who was there when you arrived, it’s your turn. By the time Slider and I were deemed to be the next through the doorway, the cluster had once again grown to a dozen or so diners, one of whom was a middle-aged woman seemingly undone by the relative informality of the situation. When she inquired as to the whereabouts of the line, she was told she was indeed in it. Commenting that it didn’t seem very organized, she was advised that (a) she was in New Orleans, and (b) for New Orleans, this was a very organized line.

Finally, Slider and I were ushered into the sanctum sanctorum, a dining room with ten tables. The room is plain. The walls are white and covered mostly with posters and photos, the most recent addition of which seems to be of President Obama. The functional, institutional furniture is more practical than pricey. The overall look is what one might expect of a neighborhood soul food place. About the only thing out of place is the framed James Beard citation inconspicuously hanging beside the front door.

The menu is simple. It’s fried chicken and a half dozen sides. There are some other entrees listed, why I don’t know, since I’ve never seen anything but plates and platters of chicken make their way out the kitchen door. What’s the point? This same kitchen door “research” indicated that the majority of customers picked red beans and rice as their side order. Slider fell into his “when in Rome” mindset and ordered the chicken and red beans; I’ve never ordered anything else at Willie Mae’s and saw no reason to end a perfectly good streak.

The food at Willie Mae’s is reputed to be cooked to order. Maybe it is; maybe not. Since at least ninety percent of the people coming in are ordering chicken and beans, I think it’s far more likely that there are jumbo pots of beans and rice simmering on a back burner, and that chicken is being battered and dropped into hot oil as long as people are parading through the front door. Such idle speculations may be neither here nor there, since the food keeps coming out of the postage stamp of a kitchen at such a clip there isn’t time or space for it to be anything but hot and fresh.

Once ordered, the wait for our food was between ten and fifteen minutes, during which time Slider Bob kept me entertained by constantly swiveling his head in expectation as a stream of plates paraded from the kitchen to other tables than ours. Our platter of chicken and plates of beans had no more hit the table when Slider grabbed a wing, trisected it and bit into the middle section.

Before the first droplet of Crystal hot sauce could land on my red beans, Slider had broken into a seraphic smile and, as I lip-synched along with him, I wondered how many thousands of people over the years had also rhapsodically claimed, “This is the best fried chicken I’ve every had in my life.”

Is the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House indeed the “best fried chicken in America,” as it has been cited on Food Network and at least suggested by the James Beard Award? I make no pretense to be an arbiter of such matters, but I can think of none better in my half century of experience, nor have I ever heard anyone walking out of Willie Mae’s claim “the chicken is better at (fill-in-the-blank).” It’s crisp outside, moist inside and has a taste that, while essentially unadorned, is anything but bland.

Slider and I didn’t talk much as we made short work of the chicken and beans, at least until there was a single breast forlornly sitting on the platter. I split it with a knife, but much to my surprise, Slider declined to take half, sighing “If I’d known it was going to really be this good, I would have ordered a side green salad instead of the beans.” With each bite I subsequently took, he somehow managed to look even more crestfallen.

Not long ago, I was reading a blog in which someone gushed that Willie Mae’s should be franchised into a national chain. I’m sure the softheaded son-of-a-bitch meant it as some sort of compliment, but the factors that make Willie Mae’s such a success are anathema to such shallow enthusiasm. The place works because, by the numbers: it’s ten tables small, open only 24 hours a week, defies the number one fundamental of real estate (location, location, location) and focuses 99% of its effort on preparing one item better than any other restaurant in America. And according to my old pal Slider Bob, “that puts ‘em one up on any other chicken joint in the whole U.S. of A.” All I can add to that is one rousing “Amen.”

Willie Mae’s Scotch House
Soul Food, Fried Chicken
(Approximately 1.9 miles by taxi from the
corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.)
2401 St. Ann (on the corner of Tonti and St. Ann)
Lunch Monday – Saturday, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Accepts major credit cards, no reservations
Telephone: (504) 822-9503
No website