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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, February 14, 2011

New Orleans Dining: Da Wabbit

The food becomes more aggressive at night,

but stays true to its Louisiana working class roots.

Da Wabbit isn’t the real name of the place except to all the people who go there, and a lot of people do.

The restaurant first opened as a drive-in café in 1949, located on one of the main drags in Gretna, a working-class community across the Mississippi River from the city proper. Sixty-three years later, Da Wabbit hasn’t moved, but the main drag has. And that seems to suit the people of Gretna just fine.

Roughly ten years ago, a new owner came in and took over Da Wabbit, which served decent food but had degenerated into a blue-collar roadhouse that served rivers of cold beer and kept a very busy card table in the back room. The new owner spiffed up the old roadhouse, upgraded the food, chucked the card table, restored some respectability and, as a final signal that things had changed, re-named the pace “Cafe 615 Home of Da Wabbit.”

Well, the new name never took, except as a line of demarcation between people who know better and those who don’t. Naturally, I head about Da Wabbit from my running buddy, Slider Bob, a man with a finely tuned nose for good hot food and better cold beer. Not too long ago, Slider took it on himself to become an unofficial chamber of commerce for both Gretna and nearby Algiers Point, and when it comes to Da Wabbit, his drum beating can be deafening. I had to see the reason for his rabid enthusiasm and now that I have, call me a convert.

Da Wabbit caters to the 95% of New Orleanians who get up every morning, go to the office or the wharf, drive cabs, pay taxes, go to Mass, drop the kids off at school and go out of their way to fit in rather than stand out. The place serves straightforward, Louisiana Mainstream cooking and seems content to repel the remaining, outspoken five percent – the culinary thrill seekers who confuse eccentricity with creativity, see the kitchen as a playing field for curious games of ingredient one-upmanship, and never hear a name they wouldn’t drop.

One look at the place will tell you decorators never descended upon it. The main room has plain beige walls above a chair rail and a rusty red wall below. There are framed posters from Gretna festivals interspersed with seasonal décor for such observed New Orleans holidays as Christmas, Mardi Gras and Saints Football among others. The front room is still a small, dark bar with six tables, but these days it seems to be utilized more as a holding tank for the dining room than a hard-pouring saloon. There’s a front desk separating the rooms and behind it is a whiteboard with the day’s specials, of which there are more than a dozen.

Things move quickly at Da Wabbit, and I don’t know if that’s because the owner is trying to get the tables to turn over quickly, or maybe the people who come to Da Wabbit for dinner like to grab, gulp and git. On our maiden visit, after being slightly startled by how quickly we were asked if we were ready to order, The Sensible One and I never felt rushed or herded. The young woman serving us was well scrubbed and most pleasant and it struck me that it probably wasn’t all that long ago that she was babysitting the kids of most of the people in the room. Just the same, she was top-notch as a server and her memory was impressive. It truly requires a prodigious memory to work at Da Wabbit. The menu is long, and it seems like the list of items on the whiteboard is even longer, yet our server ticked her way down the list without skipping a beat.

Beyond the sheer number of items on the menu and the board, there are no real surprises on the menu. During lunch, you’ll find the usual array of sandwiches, soups, salads, and plate lunches. On Thursday one of the daily specials is white beans and rice with smothered rabbit, while the every day house special is Da Wabbit Hamburger Steak. Go figure. Somehow it makes sense here.

The food becomes more aggressive at night, but stays true to its Louisiana working class roots. It’s heavy on seafood – fried (of course), grilled or broiled – and there’s the usual pork, chicken and steak. Everything, with the possible exception of the steak, seems to be cooked in a variety of ways and finished in a wide array of sauces; the most common seems to be a variation of buttery cream sauce containing either shrimp or crawfish. If one word describes the cooking to working class folks in Louisiana, it would probably be “familiar.” The Sensible One prefers to call it “comfort,” and when you consider the aforementioned house specialty is a hamburger steak smothered in mushrooms and onions, she probably has a pretty valid point.

Due to the length of the specials list, we had to ask our server to go through it a second time, which she did, surprisingly cheerfully at that. While she went through the list, I found myself changing my mind about every three items, and totally forgot that I was going to order the fried chicken, to which I’d been tipped off by several blogs and articles.

As things turned out following the recitation, we split an off-the-menu appetizer of a half dozen panéed frog legs served on a garlicky bed of onions, red bell peppers, black olives and capers sautéed in a butter sauce with a strong Italian overtones. Beyond being enjoyable, it was easily enough for the two of us.

The Sensible One ordered crawfish etouffée pair with fried catfish filets. What ultimately arrived we could have easily split and contentedly waddled away. Even though crawfish etouffée is one of the mainstays of Cajun cooking, in truth it can be a complex dish loaded with potential pitfalls for chefs of any level. Da Wabbit’s version of the old classic was delightful – a perfectly balanced blend of smoky roux, fresh seafood and layers of spice that, while definitely peppery, didn’t require a fire extinguisher as a washdown.

Her catfish was just fine. It was fried catfish, for Pete’s sake, a food so simple it would be a waste of perfectly useful adjectives to point out anything beyond the fact that the filets were thinner than many, but thicker than the gold standard thin catfish served some forty-five miles away at Middendorf’s.

After bouts with indecision following my forgetting about the much-praised fried chicken, I finally ordered Soft-Shell Crab Orleans – but only after a full explanation. Over the years, I’ve learned that the names given to dishes are essentially meaningless in a city brimming with chefs whose cooking styles identify them as everything ranging from old school conservatives to freewheeling daredevils. What arrived was a traditionally fried soft-shell on a slab of grilled garlic toast and covered with a crawfish, cream and cheese sauce. Also on the plate were a side of pasta covered with the sauce, and some green beans that were grilled with other vegetables suspiciously similar to those which had come with the frog leg appetizer.

It was here where I encountered the one disappointment in what came out of Da Wabbit’s kitchen. While the sauce exquisitely yet subtly complimented the soft-shell crab, when ladled over pasta there was an overpowering flavor of cheese that tasted more processed than natural. The Sensible One said it tasted like Velveeta™ and while I’m not willing to be quite that disparaging, it was the only misstep in what was otherwise a superb meal.

People looking for a hip, urban dining experience might do well to avoid Da Wabbit. Of course it can probably be said that people looking for a hip, urban experience of any sort might want to avoid New Orleans altogether. Despite the city’s well deserved reputation for partying every bit as hard as it works, if not harder, the West Bank very much remains a working class city to its residents, and when it comes to cooking, most residents find more comfort in the trailing edge of a chef’s knife than they do in its cutting edge.

Da Wabbit unapologetically and brilliantly caters to its West Bank clientele and, as the West Bank begins to finally take on its first whispers of social cachet, more people are discovering places that have curiously remained undiscovered for decades.

For visitors who are looking for a truly reflective dining experience instead of some quick buck artist’s pre-packaged version of warmed-over clichés, there are a lot of worse places to start than Da Wabbit. Yes, it’s real name may be “Café 615 Home of Da Wabbit” these days, but this is New Orleans, chere, and very few things here are ever exactly what they appear to be, with one possible exception being Da Wabbit. Thank goodness.

Da Wabbit

Louisiana Mainstream

(Approximately 5.5 miles by taxi from the

corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.)

615 Kepler Street, Gretna

Open Monday thru Thursday, 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Friday, 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.

Telephone: (504) 365-1225

No website

Monday, February 7, 2011

New Orlean's Dining: Katie's in Mid-City

The reasons for Katie’s post-Katrina success

and snowballing reputation are the cooking itself

and a sharp eye for the details that lift

the entire restaurant experience another level or two.

It’s only natural, I suppose, that visitors to New Orleans spend most of their time in and around the picturesque French Quarter. It’s perhaps equally natural, even if somewhat less than hospitable, for natives to neglect telling visitors about their favorite places outside the “tourism district.”

A good example of such a place might be Katie’s, ostensibly a neighborhood place in Mid-City, but one you might expect in a more upscale neighborhood – maybe on St. Charles between Napoleon Avenue and Audubon Park, or nestled between a couple of chi-chi boutiques on one of the better blocks of Magazine Street.

Mid-City started out as boondocks, but the city grew out to it in the latter year’s of the Nineteenth Century, a fair part of that growth coming as significant portions the city’s Italian/Sicilian emigrant population was integrated and ultimately accepted into the emerging middle class. To this day, there remains a strong Italian influence in the area, as evidenced in the neighborhood restaurants. The most famous of these is Mandina’s, but within blocks are Liuzza’s, Venezia and Angelo Brocato’s Fine Italian Ice Creams & Pastries. (The youngest of these is Venezia, which was opened more than a half century ago in 1957.)

The best way for visitors to reach Katie’s is to hop one of the red Canal/Carrolton line streetcars, go two miles to the corner of Canal and Telemachus Streets, then walk less than 150 yards on North Telemachus to Iberville Street, where the restaurant stands at the corner. While it’s a readily walkable distance, the streetcars are considerably safer and, hell, how often do you get to ride a genuine working streetcar in an American city anymore?

Katie’s has the kind of quirky history I’ve come to expect from one of the city’s almost countless neighborhood restaurants. The place was first opened by Leo Leininger as a fresh, new career start after he became one of the many casualties from the 1984 bust of Louisiana’s oil industry. The timing of his October 1984 opening is interesting for another reason as well. It was the last month of the 1984 World’s Fair.

While that 1984 expo turned out to be a $350,000,000 financial albatross with governmental intervention required to complete its run, it lifted the city’s spirits and released a great wave of optimism throughout the community. The French Quarter went through one of its periodic gussying-up phases, the hospitality industry boomed and the fair site itself served as a revitalizing urban renewal project for the Central Business District riverfront and the crumbling Warehouse District that had overgrown the site of the city’s old railroad yards.

Combine Leo Leininger’s late-in-life career change with the unjustified, myopic optimism stemming from the fair and the result is a fairly dependable recipe for financial catastrophe, but somehow the restaurant hung in and survived, becoming an integral part of the Mid-City landscape. But the hard work and determination it takes to launch a new restaurant based more upon hope than actual experience exacted a substantial toll from it owner and within four years, Leo Leininger died. His family continued to operate Katie’s for another six years before selling to the more experienced Craig family, who still run the business with another partner to this day.

At this point, many a story would fast forward to “happily ever after,” but in 2005, Katie’s Mid-City location took seven feet of water in Katrina and what wasn’t immediately destroyed in the hurricane’s subsequent flooding was carted off by the hordes of looters who showed up in the aftermath. To make matters even worse, the insurance settlement was barely enough to cover the reconstruction of the building’s second floor, where owner Scot Craig makes his home above the restaurant.

Determined to rebuild a better, more up-to-date Katie’s, Craig spent the four-and-one-half years rethinking, rebuilding and reworking the entire operation. A genuine Brooklyn-style pizza stone oven was added and the entire kitchen was outfitted with top-shelf quality equipment. A glass block wall separating the bar from the restaurant proper, gives the entryway a vintage neighborhood restaurant appearance that helps establish an ambience that suits not only the building but the surrounding environs as well.

Katie’s reopened in the spring of 2010 and has become increasingly busy in the same amount of time it takes word-of-mouth to spread throughout New Orleans. To a large degree, the place is staffed by family members, including Scot Craig’s ageless mother, Mary, who still greets customers at the door as she has been doing since 1994. The staff’s mutual affection and sense of family became apparent on a recent visit, when Mary arrived twenty minutes late because of a flat tire. Upon her arrival, the restaurant’s business ground to a complete halt as every staff member gathered around to check on the house matriarch. It was an endearing moment that no customer appeared to mind, and it bespeaks a great deal of Katie’s carrying on the family traditions found in so many of the city’s neighborhood dining establishments.

Truth be told, there’s not a lot of innovation to be found on the menu at Katie’s. It’s the type of food people expect in a New Orleans neighborhood restaurant: the usual array of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, plate lunches that lean toward the Italian, sides and desserts. They offer a dozen different pizzas and a daily special as well. There’s also a fairly predictable Sunday brunch containing a half-dozen tarted-up egg dishes and New Orleans standards like grillades with grits, crawfish beignets and pain perdu, but also offering the genial amenity of endless Bloody Marys, sangria or mimosas. All in all, it’s a very straightforward menu, despite an unfortunate inclination toward bewilderingly non-descriptive or cutesy-poo names that reflect not so much the food, but rather the hapless copywriter’s halfway successful capacity for wit.

The reasons for Katie’s post-Katrina success and snowballing reputation are the cooking itself and a sharp eye for the details that lift the entire restaurant experience another level or two. A telling example of this came from The Sensible One’s never-ending quest for the best onions ring in the entire New Orleans area (Current Leader in the Clubhouse: Mandina’s). Listed on the menu as “Over-the-Top Onion Rings” because of their relatively vertical presentation (groan), the rings themselves are among the city’s more successful versions of the wider, more heavily battered variety. What helps give the rings their “lift” is placing them on a nickel’s worth of spring greens and maybe another penny’s worth of what appeared to be Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning sprinkled around the rim of the plate.

Another nice idea not commonly seen in the area was “The Crabby Couple,” described by their recidivistic copywriter as “two soft shell crabs living a happy life together on two pistolettes” (I’m not making this up). Essentially, it’s two small po’boys, an idea that makes increasing sense with every consumed appetizer. Served with Zapp’s chips on the side, they are presented in a sturdy and colorful wicker basket/tary instead of the red plastic cheapies found in most po’boy places that serve their sandwiches in something more than rolled butcher paper.

While food is definitely the driving force behind the renewed success of Katie’s, first-rate cooking is not all that rare a commodity in New Orleans. Nor is it all that difficult to find restaurants owned and operated by a nuclear family for their extended “families.” What is unusual, however, is to find both components of success so brilliantly in balance and having the whole enterprise enhanced by the attention to small details that normally separate restaurants with white table cloths from those whose are covered in red gingham.

Katie’s appears on the surface to combine all three of those components of success with equal aplomb from the perspective of a chair at one of the restaurant’s tables. But anyone who has ever stood on the bank of a still pond and watched a swan effortlessly glide across the water knows that more goes on beneath the surface than ever meets the eye.

Instead of belonging in a better neighborhood, Katie’s makes Mid-City a better neighborhood in which to belong.

Katie’s Restaurant & Bar

Neighborhood Dining

(Approximately 2.1 miles by streetcar from the

corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.)

3701 Iberville Street (on the corner of Iberville and North Telemachus Streets)

Sunday – 9 am -3 pm, Monday – 11 am - 3 pm
Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday – 11 am - 9 pm
Friday & Saturday – 11 am - 10 pm
Accepts major credit cards, no reservations

Telephone: (504) 488-6582

Website: www.katiesinmidcity.com