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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, May 12, 2011

New Orleans Dining: A Trio of Avoidable Disappointments

Café du Monde

Few New Orleans commercial establishments of any kind, let alone restaurants, are as iconic as Café du Monde. Dating back to 1862, CdM is twenty-two years younger than Antoine’s, arguably the city’s best known old-line restaurant, and 128 years older than Emeril’s, the first and flagship outlet in the “BAM” Man’s culinary empire.

Located at the intersection of Decatur and St. Ann Streets on the downriver corner of historic Jackson Square, CdM is politely called a landmark by Chamber of Commerce types and a tourist trap by those of us more outspoken than gracious. Everyone seems to go there at least once in his or her lives, like some murky rite of passage, so you might as well suck it up, go and get it over with.

The menu couldn’t be more basic: beignets and coffee (Yes, they have soft drinks and orange juice, too, but they don’t refer to themselves as a coffee stand for nothing).

Beignets are square pillows of dough that poof up when tossed in the oil of a deep fryer and are then finished with liberal dustings of powdered sugar. If there is a breeze and you happen to be wearing black clothing, you may as well resign yourself to the fact that everyone will know where you’ve been. Occasionally without warning, some pour soul will sneeze in the general direction of a plate of beignets and trigger a blizzard.

While iced coffee managed to sneak its way onto the menu during CdM’s second century of operation, most people choose to drink it au lait (hot with scalded milk). Some more rugged types drink it as it comes or with a brimming teaspoon full of sugar, which in New Orleans parlance is often described as, “black as the devil, hot as hell and sweet as love.”

My general rule of thumb is to avoid Café du Monde, which can prove problematic considering that CdM now boasts eight locations scattered across the metro area, the last seven of which most visitors bypass in favor of the original Jackson Square location (the one on which my comments are based.

While the fare is acceptable (as it should be with so short a menu), the reasons I stay away can be lumped together with the simple words, “everything else.” It is a madhouse in the morning and not worth the wait, at least to me. During the afternoon and through the night when there are fewer customers, I have found the place to hover between unkempt and downright squalid. Finally, as to the waiters, while I can think of several thousand things I’d rather do than schlep beignets and café au lait to hordes of nickel counting tourists, well, I’ve seen cheerier folks in a proctologist’s waiting room.

All that said, if you’re like 99% of the visitors to New Orleans, at some point you will end up dusted with powdered sugar at Café do Monde. It’s just part of the drill, somewhat akin to a Nathan’s hot dog at Coney Island or a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby. Set your standards low enough and you might not be disappointed

Café du Monde

Coffee Stand

800 Decatur (at St. Ann) Street

(Eight blocks on foot from the junction of

St. Charles Avenue, Canal and Royal Streets)

Open 24 hours daily except Christmas

No reservations

Cash only

Telephone: (504) 525-4544

Website: www.cafedumonde.com

The Camellia Grill

“I guess you had to be there.”

Someone has no doubt said it to you when what they considered a side-splitting story from their past was met by your blank stare. Perhaps you and your Significant Other attended different colleges and, being the good sport you are, you allowed yourself to be dragged along on your SO’s stroll down memory lane, where the landmarks meant nothing to you.

These kinds of disconnects are what I feel at The Camellia Grill on South Carrollton near St. Charles Avenue. This original location, opened in 1946 when GI’s returning from World War II were opening restaurants on an almost daily basis, has in recent ears been joined by outposts in Baton Rouge, Destin (Florida) and the French Quarter.

In the name of fairness, let me confess that I know nothing of the copies beyond what I’ve seen by looking in the windows of the French Quarter branch. My comments are based on visits to the original location, a place so mediocre I’ve never felt any desire, let alone need, to check out the knockoffs.

The fact that The Camellia exists in one location, let alone four, is prima facie evidence of the tired notion that nostalgia will usually trump excellence, at least below the Mason-Dixon line. Abandoned for more than two years after being swamped by Katrina in 2005, the café’s reconstruction and well camouflaged restoration was delayed by the owner’s indecision about reopening, some courting of investors and the reassembly of The Camellia’s displaced and far-flung staff before becoming un fait accompli. The entire process ultimately begs the question: At what point does a major effort to save a second-rate diner become first-rate folly?

Granted, The Camellia oozes curb appeal. A whitewashed Greek Revival bungalow complete with classic gabled pediment and the homey touch of a white picket fence, the building is nestled beneath tall trees. The fabled St. Charles streetcar rumbles along the “neutral ground” bisecting South Carrolton in front of the restaurant. It makes for a most pleasant place to stand in line, something you will definitely be doing (and quite possibly for a long time) should you decide to visit during weekend breakfasts or brunch. Alas, The Camellia’s idyllic charm stops at the front door.

Inside, you’ll find a serpentine lunch counter, which looks like it would be more at home in a truck stop or an old five-and-dime store, and some benches where you’ll wait a little longer for stools to clear. The waiters jabber in a patois of their own, an idiosyncrasy not all that uncommon in many a city’s entrenched diners and greasy spoons, but it may be of passing interest to people who have never been exposed to such nattering, at least for a minute or two.

The menu offers a predictable variety of diner specialties – burgers, chili cheese omelets, shakes, etc, -- and the food is as passable as it is uninspired. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong per se with The Camellia Grill, but why anyone in a city with so many first-rate restaurants would choose such a shrine to mediocrity escapes me.

I guess I wasn’t there when I needed to be, so many moons ago.

The Camellia Grill

American Diner

625 South Carrollton (at St. Charles) Avenue

(5.5 miles by streetcar from the junction of

St. Charles Avenue, Canal and Royal Streets)

Open seven days, 8 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Friday and Saturday hours extended to 2 a.m.

No reservations

All major credit cards honored

Telephone: (504) 309-2679

Website: www.camelliagrill.net

Palm Court Jazz Café

Imagine, if you will, a French Quarter restaurant serving traditional New Orleans dishes accompanied by traditional New Orleans jazz played by pick-up ensembles of mainly geriatric jazz masters.

The concept itself is unassailable, and the only thing that surprises me is that more people haven’t given it a shot. After all, the Palm Court Jazz Café has managed to hang around for over twenty years running an operation that would have a life expectancy of maybe six months if it had any real competition.

Aside from the geezers on the bandstand and the occasionally heavy-handed bartender, the PCJC is the biggest disappointment I can think of in all New Orleans, or at the very least in a dead heat with The Court of Two Sisters and Mother’s.

If you want to hear genuine traditional jazz played the old way and have a few drinks in the process, I actually do suggest the bar area at PCJC. While not as well known or picturesque as rickety Preservation Hall, the jazz is hot, the drinks are cold and chances are you won’t be relegated to standing in shadows at the back of the room or jostled by the sneaker and fanny pack crowd. Moreover, the barroom/lounge is in the shorter leg of the L-shaped room and directly faces the stage, allowing patrons to see the players head-on. It truly is a good place to enjoy a set or two of America’s original form of jazz.

Beyond the bar and the bandstand, well, things go straight to hell.

The longer dining room is situated in such a way that all the diners get is a stage left partial view of a few of the players, which is a poor idea for two reasons. First, by exiling food clientele to such a visual Siberia, PCJC is immediately telegraphing the notion that customer satisfaction takes a back seat to the convenience of their operation. Secondly, and probably even more disastrous, by making it more difficult for the customer to savor the jazz, PCJC is ipso facto encouraging people to actually focus on the food, when the one ingredient that might salvage the chow is a liberal measure of distraction.

To call the food execrable may be unsporting, but accurate. Until The Sensible One and I wised up and just started watching the band from the bar, we were (mis)treated to a very respectable garlic chicken destroyed by the tepid red beans and rice accompaniment, lukewarm seafood pasta swimming is an astonishing bland “Creole sauce,” and several other items that time and the mercy of a fading memory have allowed us to forget. While the somewhat lengthy menu is rife with selections from the canons of traditional Louisiana cuisine, PCJC’s kitchen executions were so inconsistent and slapdash that I felt I was generous when I gave their cooking a second chance, an overly charitable error in judgment I won’t repeat a third time.

At its black little heart, Palm Court Jazz Café is a tourist trap that cynically uses first-rate New Orleans jazz to foist fifth-rate food on naive visitors who the house is betting won’t know the difference and whose likelihood of a return visit to the city anytime soon is negligible at best. Any illusion to the contrary evaporates when the harpy in charge of the place announces it’s time for everyone to “second line.”

“Second lining” is a New Orleans tradition harkening back to the heydays of brass bands and jazz funerals. After marching to the cemetery to a somber dirge and entombing the dearly departed, the band breaks into joyous jazz and, with the family and main mourners in tow, form a “first line” and dances its way to a celebration of the loved one’s ascension to Heaven. They are followed by the “second line,” usually an unceremonious coalition of onlookers, bystanders and less than reputable acquaintances who dance along, often twirling colorful parasols or waving white handkerchiefs.

Regrettably, At Palm Court Jazz Café, the second line is patently phony and anything but spontaneous. Once the call for everyone to join in is shouted out with all the mechanical enthusiasm of a sideshow barker or a lamppost worker with sore feet, the vast majority of customers (who have no idea of what a second line might possibly be) stays firmly rooted in their bentwood chairs. I suspect that most tourists realize the PCJC version of a second line is about as authentic as a four-buck Rolex and act accordingly.

It’s a shame, really.

After all, chefs can be fired and kitchens fixed. Floor plans can be rejiggered for the benefit of the customer instead of the shortsighted convenience of the house. Patrons can have their curiosity rewarded with authentic traditional jazz instead of having their intelligence insulted by contrived showmanship and bogus events. Ultimately, it’s all a matter of treating clientele with open respect instead of cynical contempt. It’s a matter of will that, in the maladroit hands of Palm Court, has degenerated into a matter of won’t.

The corruption of such an attractive concept as good jazz and good food by such an inept group of mis-managers is more than a disappointment awaiting visitors to New Orleans. It’s at best a tragedy, and it ought to be a crime.

Palm Court Jazz Cafe

Louisiana Traditional

1204 Decatur (at Governor Nicholls) Street

(0.9 miles on foot from the junction of

St. Charles Avenue, Canal and Royal Streets)

Dinner served Wednesday - Sunday, 7 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Reservations are suggested

All major credit cards honored

Telephone: (504) 525-0200

Website: www.palmcourtjazzcafe.com

Photos used provided by Flckr strictly for noncommercial purposes