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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 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

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