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.”
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
Photos courtesy arnaudsrestaurant.com