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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, 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

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