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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, March 30, 2011

New Orleans Dining: The Sunday Jazz Brunch at Arnaud's

Like all of the city’s old-line restaurants,

Arnaud’s reputation has been tidal, causing

the restaurant to fall in and out of favor

and fashion with the passing of decades.

Sundays can prove to be problematic for visitors in cities like New Orleans, where tourism drives a significant portion of the economy, and one of the industry’s major components is culinary heritage. Many of the city’s better restaurants are dark. In those that remain open, chances are the head chef is cracking open a cold beer at home in front of the TV.

This caused a classic quandary: chefs need a day off while visitors still need to eat. The New Orleans solution was simple – the jazz brunch. Put together a menu of dishes simple enough that it could be produced without too much effort or risk by the line cooks and further divert the customers’ attentions by having a handful of musicians play traditional Dixieland jazz as they meander table-by-table through the room(s).

No one is quite sure who should get the credit for the Sunday jazz brunch; several restaurants claim to be the originator. While any place can hire three or four jazzmen to prowl their restaurant, the true jazz brunch is generally considered the domain of New Orleans’ “temples” of Creole cuisine: Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s, Broussard’s (seasonally) and the focus of this monograph; namely, Arnaud’s.

In fact, the only “grand dame” missing from the list is Galatoire’s, which categorically refuses to alter its venerable menu between lunch and dinner or on any day of the week. A jazz brunch is also served (buffet style) seven days a week at The Court of Two Sisters, a naïve tourist-driven place best summed up in two words: caveat emptor.

While one can argue the fine points of which “temple” serving a traditional Sunday jazz brunch does it better or worse than the others, a closer inspection of Arnaud’s, which does such a brunch as well as anybody, provides an instructive look at the inner workings of some of the city’s most fabled restaurants.

Arnaud’s was founded by French wine salesman Arnaud Cazenave in 1918, making it the fourth oldest of New Orleans’ traditional “brand-name” restaurants. His family ran the old-line Creole eatery for sixty years before it was purchased by the Casbarian family, the fourth generation of which is currently at the helm.

Like all of the city’s old-line restaurants, Arnaud’s reputation has been tidal, causing the restaurant to fall in and out of favor and fashion with the passing of decades. Within two years of its founding, the fledgling restaurant was threatened by the passage of the Volstead Act, which plunged the nation into thirteen years of Prohibition. Most New Orleans restaurants surviving the “whisky drought” did so with a wink and a nod, and Arnaud’s was no exception, serving bootleg hooch in coffee cups while local law enforcement officials looked the other way.

During the dry years of the 1920s, a number of the city’s more fashionable restaurants (particularly Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s) were reputed to be quite lenient with the activities taking place in their private rooms, referred to as chambres privées. While private entrances and extremely circumspect (and very well-tipped) staff kept the activities occurring within the chambers beyond the reach of prying eyes and ears, the public rooms swirled with speculation and gossip, making eyewitness information the social currency of the day.

When Prohibition ended, and business-as-usual returned, several restaurateurs started pumping their money into immediately neighboring real estate. Buying a building at a time and connecting the rooms with labyrinthine passageways, proprietors transformed what appeared to be normal-sized restaurants judging by their exteriors into a maze of dining rooms with enormous capacity. Today, Arnaud’s is a complex of a dozen different dining rooms, while Antoine’s weighs in with fourteen.

And it is here where the illusions of these grand old behemoths shatter and reality sets in. To serve an enormous number of diners requires an enormous staff, an enormous kitchen, and an enormous pantry and scullery, let alone all the purveyors and logistics necessary to keep a steady stream of goods coming into the kitchen so finished meals can go out. The pure numeric volumes associated with a high-capacity food operation make meaningful customization a myth, and the heart of the high-end restaurant experience is at least the illusion of a meal individually prepared by a master chef.

Arnaud’s does as good a job as any other New Orleans restaurant in disguising an assembly line approach to cooking, but isn’t totally successful. This was evidenced at The Sensible One’s and my most recent Sunday Jazz Brunch outing.

The Sensible One’s four courses were: a half dozen oysters on the half shell, a house salad, an entrée of Savory Crabmeat Cheesecake and crème brûlee for dessert. While the oysters were fresh (and the accompanying horseradish-laden sauce met with her enthusiastic approval), the salad appeared to have come from a cloning laboratory, the crab cheesecake (good crab flavor but no crab texture) was clearly pre-cooked and sliced, and the crème brûlee in its own ramekin was plainly pulled from a cooler and finished with a quick caramelizing blast from a blowtorch.

As for mine, well, the turtle soup was watery at worst and tepid at best, the salad was off the same assembly line as The Sensible One’s, and my entrée of Eggs Fauteux (poached eggs and house-smoked pompano on an English muffin with a dill-infused Hollandaise) were dead giveaways of the potential inconsistencies in mass cooking. One of the eggs was poached solid and the other’s runny yolk would have run much faster if it had been served hot rather than cold. While the dessert (Strawberries Arnaud) was obviously plucked from a chiller, it was the high point of brunch; the berries were fresh and the Port sauce was tempered with cinnamon that kept it from becoming cloying.

Despite the above two paragraphs, we have no real complaint with the food we were served at Arnaud’s. The factory aspects of its preparation are understandable, if not optimal, considering the number of people the restaurant serves. Also, each of our meals was priced under thirty-two dollars for four courses, which (when compared to Antoine’s or particularly Brennan’s) is an extremely fair price for Sunday brunch in a classic French Quarter restaurant.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of brunching at Arnaud’s, however, is the main dining room itself. Upon entering it, one can feel the clock turning back and the tawdriness of the French Quarter’s rowdiest section fade into the distance. With its white pressed tin ceiling, oak wainscoting, ceiling fans and chandeliers, the room is at once grand, but bentwood bistro furniture and Italian tile flooring offset any stiff formality. A wall of windows featuring more than 2400 panes of beveled glass allows the room to be both bright and private by day, yet twinkling and elegant after dark. Above the main dining room is a secluded mezzanine filled only with a handful of two-tops, widely reputed to be the most romantic room in the city.

Like all the “grand dame” restaurants in the city, Arnaud’s has had to reluctantly change with the times. Jackets are encouraged for gentlemen, but no longer required. I believe shorts and blue jeans are discouraged, but after our recent visit, it’s hard to say. Indeed, the world is a far more casual place than it was ten years ago, let alone one hundred. That isn’t to say that attention to one’s wardrobe or appearance is a thoroughly lost custom. At heart, New Orleans in many ways remains an Old World enclave where many patrician natives continue to show respect to the institutions serving them by dressing for lunch or dinner in one the city’s classic restaurants. And while it is perhaps a matter of age, I find myself far more comfortable blending in with those who revere the old ways of their venerated institutions than taking up with those who would downgrade them.

Arnaud’s certainly has its flaws, some of them brought on by its attempt to remain a bastion of civilization in a city supported by hordes of people trying to escape it. Some flaws can be fixed – the motor-mouthed waiter trying to rush patrons through their meals, the long black skirts and ruffled collar white blouses that make the mainly African American hostesses look like plantation slaves, the picky mechanical details of making sure each table has bread and butter, and waiting to clear plates until diners are finished eating.

But the flaws are minor, the criticisms bordering on the hairsplitting. It’s noon on Sunday. The bubbly is on ice. There are Sazeracs to be savored. The jazz guys are all tuned up and the army of chefs is on the march. It’s time to savor the civilization. The Jazz Brunch at Arnaud’s may not be perfect, but it’s sure as hell one of the things that gives New Orleans its nickname of “the city that care forgot.”


Classic Creole

813 Bienville at Bourbon Street

(Three blocks on foot from the corner of

Canal Street, Royal Street and St. Charles Ave.)

Open for dinner Monday through Sunday from 6 pm

Brunch served Sunday from 11 am – 2 pm

Reservations highly recommended

All major credit card accepted

Telephone: (504) 523-5433

Website: www.arnaudsrestaurant.com

Photos courtesy arnaudsrestaurant.com

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Orleans Dining: Irene's Cuisine

Photo: Matt Rose/The Times-Picayune Archive

It is the Old World cooking style of Europe’s Mediterranean rim,

and its unpretentious execution borders on absolute perfection.

I like Irene’s Cuisine. In fact, I like it a lot. But in one major way, I’d like to like it a lot more.

The restaurant was originally a kitchen and two very small dining rooms that had been partitioned out of a parking garage at the corner of St. Philip and Chartres Streets in the lowed French Quarter. Over the years, it’s added another small dining room and a pocket bar that serves as one purgatory – if not one hell – of a holding area.

Some guidebooks refer to the cooking as French, while most call it Italian, and maybe they’re both right. There are some elements of each on the short-ish menu, which should come as no real surprise considering that traditional New Orleans cooking, as it continually evolves, has been strongly influenced by both early French settlers and immigrant Italians (not to mention Africans, Spaniards, Croatians, Caribbean islanders, native Americans and, more recently, refugees from Vietnam among others).

While arguing about the origins of any food may be great sport in New Orleans food circles, such arguments are essentially unwinnable. After all, who knows for sure whether a rosemary chicken originally came out of an oven in Parma or Provence? Beyond that, who really gives a damn? Suffice it to say that if someone flatly pronounced Irene’s cuisine to be among the city’s best despite its apparently borderless provenance, they’d probably get very little serious argument.

It’s rare enough for a restaurant’s signature dish to be chicken and in the Deep South. It’s even more uncommon for that chicken to be cooked any way other than fried. That said, if Irene’s has a true signature dish, it would be the rosemary chicken. If not, it would certainly be in the top two or three. There’s nothing very complex about the dish. In fact, it’s so simple that it’s become a “go to” meal for newly married couples whose culinary skills are such that a can opener presents a formidable kitchen challenge.

In the hands of Irene’s kitchen staff, however, the dish is lifted from the mundane to the transcendental. Instead of using a lot of seasonings for their own sake, the kitchen sticks with the essential aromatics and balances them with precision, panache and finesse. It is the Old World cooking style of Europe’s Mediterranean rim, and its unpretentious execution borders on absolute perfection.

Oddly enough, I tend to avoid pollo rosemarino and other chicken dishes beyond the confines of my own kitchen, where The Sensible One’s mastery of such preparations can be auspicious, and I used to wonder why I keep ordering it at Irene’s. The answer, I realized, is either a happy accident or insidious marketing, and I’m not sure which it is. You see, there is an exhaust fan on the Chartres Street side of Irene’s, and starting about three o’clock in the afternoon when the kitchen is in full prep mode, the street corner becomes redolent with the smells of garlic, thyme and rosemary. It is a heady, seductive perfume to the taste buds, and it imbeds a desire for rosemary chicken that’s damn near impossible to dislodge.

The bulk of the menu doesn’t stray far from classic foods. You’ll find escargots prepared in a traditional French manner as an appetizer, veal scaloppini finished with a reduction of Sicilian Marsala, Italian mussels marinara, even a superb San Francisco style cioppino (the American cousin to the legendary bouillabaisse of Marseilles). All the food produced by Irene’s kitchen seems to adhere to the principal of simplicity that works so well for the chicken.

One dish that gets a little more aggressive is a Louisiana soft shell crab in a crawfish cream sauce served over pasta. While not as simple or familiar to non-natives as most of the items on the menu, its preparation maintains the same confidence and restraint while adding a soupcon of traditional New Orleans to the menu.

As refined as the cooking coming out of the small kitchen may be, a major part of Irene’s lure can be found in the dining rooms themselves. Each of the rooms has its own personality; one feels like a trattoria in the Tuscan countryside, another is a cozy wine cellar. The sum result is an environment exquisitely matched to the cuisine. They are small and what little space they have is as tightly packed with tables as you’ll find in New York or any other major city where real estate prices border on the obscene.

While such shoulder-to-shoulder, cheek-to-jowl seating may provoke mild claustrophobia to some diners more used to spacious dining rooms, it makes Irene’s more convivial and intimate. In fact, on one of The Sensible One’s and my recent visits, one of the people at the next turned and asked us if we’d ever had the Creole Cream Cheese Cake for dessert, whereupon she cut off a piece and put the plate on our table with no effort at all. (Despite my mother’s admonition to never take cheesecake from strangers, I’m glad we did. It was superlative.)

Service is generally good, although some of the wait staff has an unfortunate tendency to come across as imperious, but in all fairness, if I had to spend the night negotiating through such tight confines while balancing a tray of food, I have little doubt that I’d get cranky from time to time.

If I have a complaint about Irene’s Cuisine, and I have a major one, it’s their reservations policy, or lack of one, or the fact that if they have one at all, it’s at best a moving target. According to a tourism website, Irene’s policy is, "Limited reservations accepted if space is available." That’s all well and good, but space is rarely available – unless you’re a city resident, a known regular, and you call to tell them exactly when you’re planning to show up. What little wait such friends of the house have, if any, is very short.

And if you’re not a local regular?

You will be led to the small piano bar in the back of the restaurant, told there will be a short wait and you will be generally ignored. There is a small walk-up bar in a corner where the drinks aren’t stiff but the prices are. The place is so small you’ll feel like you’re in a Nazi boxcar. To top it off, there is “entertainment” in the form of a piano player. The last time The Sensible One and I went for dinner at Irene’s, we were consigned to this holding cell, where we suffered through the better part of two sets by some joker who compensated for his lack of keyboard talent with volume -- and whose voice, such as it was, almost totally disguised the songs of Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair and several other New Orleans musical legends. While I am told a two-hour-plus wait is not uncommon at Irene’s Cuisine, I don’t know from personal experience. After an hour-and-a-half, we told the headwaiter to take our name off the list and started to leave. Wonder of wonder, miracle or miracles, our table just opened up (Gosh, imagine that).

While I understand a restaurant’s need to take care of local business, the way Irene’s mishandles the reservation process is not only a disgrace; it’s an insult to the city’s visitors. I think there are only two ways to circumvent this unfortunate system. The first is to move to New Orleans and show up often enough to become a known regular with favored nation status. The other is to show up when the door opens at 5:30. Irene’s is good, but nowhere near good enough to kill two hours waiting from the chance to spend your money.

As I said earlier, I like Irene’s Cuisine. The food is terrific. The rooms are charming. Several years ago, The Sensible One and I had such a lovely evening there that we went back the next night, and almost went again the night after that. Now, if they’d at least pretend to like me as much as I like them, I might consider going back. But until they clean up their act, it’s a pleasure I’m disinclined to pursue.

Who know? Maybe you’ll be greeted with open arms and immediately whisked to a cozy table for one of the better meals you can get in New Orleans. It’s worth a try, but plan on going early or consider taking a tent to pitch while you wait.

Consider yourself warned.

Irene’s Cuisine


539 St. Phillip Street at Charters Street

(Approximately .7 miles on foot from the intersection of

Canal Street, Royal Street and St. Charles Avenue)

Open Monday through Saturday, 5:30 pm – 10 PM

Accepts all major credit cards

Reservations are a fiasco, but try anyway

Telephone: (504) 528-8811

No website

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Orleans Dining: Croissant D'or

Cool decor at the Croissant D'Or

…the temptation always exists to forego such conventional fare

and instead create your own buffet comprised wholly of desserts.

It didn’t take many visits to New Orleans to discover my strong preference for the “lower” French Quarter between St. Ann and Esplanade, as opposed to the more commercial “upper” section between Canal Street and Jackson Square. With the exception of Decatur Street and the bustling French Market, the lower Quarter is quieter, more residential and generally easier on all the senses.

It’s far cleaner than the five main blocks of the Bourbon Street zoo. It certainly smells fresher, and chances are your foot won’t stick in something tossed onto the sidewalk. You can actually hear the clopping hooves of the mules pulling the open-air tourist carriages, and if you listen carefully, you can eavesdrop on the drivers as they mangle the true history of New Orleans in favor of yarns, gossip and outright whoppers.

For years, I’ve read and heard about New Orleans being “the most European city in America” (however you may wish to interpret such an open-ended clause), and having traveled a great part of the European continent, I’m inclined to agree. The Euro-vibe notion is particularly true in the lower Quarter, and it’s one of the main reasons The Sensible One and I decided to make our first “second home” on Esplanade before Katrina.

The area features an abundance of boutique hotels (among them Le Richelieu, Soniat House, the Provincial and others) and cozy restaurants (Irene’s Cuisine, Stella!, Italian Barrel and more), but the place I find myself repeatedly coming back to is Croissant D’or, a pocket patisserie on a quiet stretch of Ursulines Avenue between Chartres and Royal Streets.

At first glance, Croissant D’or is little more than a storefront coffee shop catering to the neighborhood’s early risers and shopkeepers. While it looks pleasant enough from the sidewalk, it’s the kind of place people have a tendency to pass by. It’s rarely full. In fact, I’ve been going there for over a quarter century and can’t recall ever having to wait for a table.

The inside is attractive in a Euro-retro kind of way. In a previous life, it was the original home of Angelo Brocato’s Italian ice cream parlor and bakery; at least until the city’s leading gelato maker joined the migration of the city’s Italian population from the lower Quarter into the Mid-City neighborhood. The tile remains Italianate in inspiration, the lights inside the main archway’s rim are evocative of an early 20th Century ice cream emporium, and the white tablecloths contrasting against the dark, utilitarian furniture gives Croissant D’or a classic French bistro casual feeling.

The main room, bisected by the arch, has the counter and bakery cases at one end and, at the other, a large stained-glass wall panel identifying itself as “The Coffee House,” which I gather was either the name of a previous incarnation or perhaps a piece salvaged from a different restaurant that went belly up years ago. It’s a small room, perhaps a dozen tables, but outside several more tables are available on a petite open-air patio with a burbling fountain. Despite intermittent visits by the occasional pigeon in search of a runaway crumb or two, the place oozes charm.

Tucked away out of sight behind the main counter is the very heart of Croissant D’or, its bakery, and its output borders on the divine. The namesake croissants are flaky, delicate and as golden as the patisserie’s name suggests. Rather than list an exhaustive inventory, suffice it to say that if it can be done with, on or to a croissant, you’ll find it there. Savory with sausage, sweet with almond or stuffed with chicken salad and served as a sandwich, the croissants are versatile, but merely the beginning. There is usually a selection of quiches, a kettle or two of soup and sandwiches prepared on small baguettes baked on premises in the traditional French manner.

As well prepared as all the mainstream lunch items may be, the temptation always exists to forego such conventional fare and instead create your own buffet comprised wholly of desserts. A number of years ago, it was said that a major part of Croissant D’or sales came from providing desserts to numerous restaurants around the city. Whether or not that remains true today, I am in no position to say; nonetheless, their inventory doesn’t seem to be as large or extensive as I remember from the pre-Katrina days. I can say without hesitation, however, that Croissant D’or serves some of New Orleans’ most beautifully constructed and presented French pastries.

One of the front baker’s cases is filled with nothing but desserts. Napoleons, casinos, fruit-laden tarts, éclairs, carrot cake and numerous other delectables fight for your attention in an array that can prove to be mesmerizing. When the line at the counter is long enough, I can normally decide on a single choice. This has taught me to wish for short lines, which allow me to select several desserts and justify it by declaring that customers behind me shouldn’t be forced to wait on account of my indecision.

Oddly enough, in the face of all the mainstream items and decadent patisserie offerings, my favorite thing at Croissant D’or is a simple peasant’s breakfast: a cup of black coffee, a modest baguette and enough soft butter to literally slather it. In direct contrast to what the pastries demonstrate in terms of culinary showmanship, there is a straightforward simplicity in the baguette that creates an elegance all its own. Holistically, it provides a most agreeable way to begin a day in a city that portends undiscovered gastronomic treasures running deep into the night.

Within the tight confines of Croissant D’or, there isn’t a lot of people watching. Most people seem content to keep their nose in the morning newspaper and their index finger curled around the handle of their white ceramic coffee cup. For a room with floor-to-ceiling tile walls, it is conspicuously quiet; the anticipated echo is smothered by soft conversation. The end result is unexpectedly disarming.

In the end, there is a fundamental rightness to Croissant D’or. Even though this French patisserie makes its home in a reclaimed Italian ice cream parlor, one gets the sense that the city grew around it, that the gentle European flavor of the lower Quarter is an outgrowth of the place instead of its host.

It was in this room and on the hidden patio where The Sensible One and I began to feel at one with the people in the quieter, gentler neighborhoods in this remarkable city of villages. Now, years later, we not only feel at one, we feel at home.

Croissant D’or

French Patisserie

617 Ursulines Avenue

(Approximately 3/4 miles on foot

from the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.)

Open Wednesday through Monday, 6:30 am – 3:00 pm

No reservations; Accepts all major credit cards

Telephone: (504) 524-4663

No website

Photo: Copyright SanFranAnnie@flicker.com

Saturday, March 5, 2011

New Orleans Dining: Vine & Dine

Conventional wisdom suggests that

Vine & Dine has everything set up backward.

It took a few visits to Vine & Dine to realize what I found so appealing about the West Bank wine bar/deli/bistro, but once it hit me, I was whisked back to childhood wonderment.

As an adult whose middle age is rapidly receding, I remain fascinated by Russian nesting dolls, or at least the childhood variations on them. One kid version starts with a plastic egg that, once opened, reveals a smaller plastic egg that, when opened, reveals a still smaller plastic egg, a process that keeps repeating itself until the last egg is opened, revealing a plastic chicken. If I recall, there was another variation, wherein barrels replaced the eggs and a plastic monkey took the place of the chicken.

Perhaps those are quirky analogies, but should you traverse the seven consecutive components of the former pooch grooming palace, from the cheerlessly humdrum entrance to the ingeniously converted dog run secreted away at the other end, you too may find the proper words with which to describe Vine & Dine equally elusive. To wit:

1. The front entrance and foyer should be enough to scare off anyone who doesn’t know what waits inside, or at the very least consider opting for a visit to the Dry Dock Café & Bar next door. I won’t mince words. The building’s facade is downright ugly. From the Algiers ferry terminal about 100 yards up the hill, the generic brick building with its neon “OPEN” sign in a too-small window looks like it should house a bail bondsman instead of a bistro. There’s a roofline sign identifying the business, but it looks more like an afterthought or possibly an ad for someone else. The foyer is shared with the landlord’s barbershop, a place that could never be considered a “salon” or even a “style shop” by anyone other than Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. After such an inauspicious first impression…

2. …you walk through the foyer’s French doors and enter the prep room and takeout counter of the deli part of the operation. While it’s certainly clean enough, and you’re likely to be greeted by Vanessa, the cheerful co-owner who runs the food operation, the first time I went in, I kept thinking I had entered the wrong business through the back door.

3. Turning left, you come to a series of small, consecutive rooms, the first of which holds a refrigerated case featuring two shelves of cheeses and a small array of chilled craft and imported beers. Next to the case is a baker’s rack with a modest selection of crackers and the room-temp beer that wouldn’t fit in the chiller. On another wall is a table with about six types of sparkling wine for sale. It is an underwhelming start, but things begin looking up as you…

4. …enter the next room, where you discover two longer walls of white wines, offering roughly forty to fifty varietals and blends, very few of which cost more than thirty dollars per bottle while most cost considerably less. No one will ever confuse the inventory with that of a major wine and spirits retailer, an impression confirmed when…

5. …you reach the next room, which is devoted exclusively to reds and a small section of ports. But it is here where Vine & Dine starts transforming itself into something more interesting than a nondescript deli and understocked wine store. In the center of the room are two small bistro tables available for customers to enjoy their wine purchases. The only time anyone sits there, however, is when the next room is crowded, because…

6. … the innermost room is a postage stamp of a wine bar that seems better suited to an off-the-main-highway village in the south of France, maybe Spain or Portugal. There’s no chattering television and rarely any music of any sort. There are four tables in the softly lit, tangerine-colored room, and a microbar with five stools in the back corner. Glasses clink. Lovers whisper. A table full of longstanding friends erupts in laughter. It is an essentially unadorned room where one might be unsurprised to find a latter day Hemingway regaling a pair of unconvinced women with rollicking yarns that none of them believe. Almost unnoticed is a barred security door leading to…

7. …Vine & Dine’s outdoor inner sanctum, a three-table, enclosed terrace where a skyful of stars glitters through an arbor’s open crossbeams and the din of the city yields to the chirping of crickets and cicadas, interrupted only by the bellow of a passing ship’s horn a scant 200 yards away on the river. Low wattage bulbs glow from beneath the rough-hewn arbor beams, but terrace’s true sources of light seem to emanate from both tabletop candles and the shimmering galaxies under heaven’s vault. There are few more civilized yet casual places in the city for a glass of Cabernet, a wedge of Camembert, a nibble of prosciutto or a moonlit tryst.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Vine & Dine has everything set up backward, from its uninviting facade to its embracing jewel box of a terrace. Perhaps, but I can’t tell you how eagerly I look forward to my earliest return.

You see, despite it architectural eccentricities, Vine & Dine is ultimately a romantic hideaway retaining both the energy and charm of a work in progress. Although the place has now been open a couple of years, youthful owners Vanessa and Stephen Thurber still radiate the how-can-we-please-you attitude they doubtlessly possessed on the day they first unlocked the door. But in a legendary restaurant market as ferociously competitive as metropolitan New Orleans, making a go of it requires more than the working capital to survive lean times and the optimism that fatter times lie just ahead. It requires savvy and these two entrepreneurs seem to possess it in spades.

While their inventory of wines is short, the selections themselves are long on quality and prudently priced, demonstrating a degree of noteworthy sophistication in knowledge of both their offerings and the marketing realities of their location. Carryout sandwich and retail wine sales are doubtlessly helped by its location a stone’s skip from the Canal Street to Algiers ferry, but Vine & Dine’s bedrock business appears to come predominantly from within walking distance. The historic district of Algiers Point may be a picturesque hotbed of architectural restoration that houses a substantial number of young professionals and their families, but at heart and checkbook, it’s a middle class neighborhood.

Many of the wines are available by the glass in the wine bar and on the terrace, but full bottles may be purchased at the regular retail price with a five-dollar per bottle corkage fee instead of the traditional 210% restaurant tariff. From five until seven on weekday evenings, a “bottomless” glass of either Chardonnay or Merlot is available for ten dollars. Also, for beer aficionados, there are assorted brands from mainly boutique domestic and some better-known international breweries.

The selection of approximately two dozen cheeses is purchased from The St. James Cheese Company, the fashionable Uptown retailer with roots stemming directly from Paxton & Whitfield, London’s oldest cheese merchant (since 1797). Like the wine selections, this list may appear limited in length but is shrewd in breadth.

If there is a caveat, and I can only think of one, it is that on occasion I have been in the small wine bar when several groups of ladies gathered after work and the decibel level of ear-piercing laughter kept increasing at a rate commensurate with their accelerating consumption. While such occasions are rare, they nonetheless do occur, and irascible curmudgeons like me should consider themselves duly warned.

That said, I still can think of few places I would rather be than hidden away with The Sensible One beneath the arbor beams of Vine & Dine, pencil-thin panatela in hand, watching a shooting star and waiting with a glass of tawny port as a wedge of chilled Stilton inches its way toward room temperature. Even Omar Khayyam’s thousand-year-old Rubáiyát can use an updated stanza every century or two.

Vine & Dine

Wine Bar & Bistro

141 Delaronde Street, Algiers Point

(Approximately .6 miles on foot, plus a half-mile ride by free ferry

from the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.

Wine Bar & Bistro open Monday through Saturday, 5 pm – 9 pm

Retail Store open Monday through Friday, 3 pm – 9 pm,

Saturday, Noon – 9 pm

Telephone: (504) 361-1402

Website: www.vine-dine.com

Photo courtesy vine-dine.com