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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

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Clancy's

To take absolutely nothing away from Clancy’s,
its inspiration is so transparently based upon
one of the grand temples of Creole cuisine
they could have named the place “Galatoire’s Lite.”

When Anthony Uglesich closed his namesake restaurant three months before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, I was more distraught than I normally would be by the closing of one of the Crescent City’s better dining establishments.
            Hell, I couldn’t blame the man. “Mr. Ant’ny” had gone to work for his father there some fifty years before. He’s watched the neighborhood go from working class to seed, his knees were shot from spending a half-century on his feet and, try as he might, he couldn’t find a buyer who’d be willing to actually work at the tumbledown joint.
            The reason for my anguish was that the soft-shell crabs so simply fried and served by Uglesich’s were nothing less than the dish’s gold standard. Prior to my fortuitous discovery of Uglesich’s, I had found the source for such a golden designation to be an old Mom-and-Pop called Crecahe’s in, of all places, Jackson, Mississippi.
            Somehow, these two places had led me to believe that the only way to find good soft-shells was to look around for out-of-the-way places that had been around for at least several generations. Now, after six-plus years of sampling soft-shell crabs – fried, sautéed and in poor boy sandwiches – I’ve once again found the elusive golf standard, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s an old, out-of-the way place that’s been around for more than a century.
            The old restaurant that has evolved into the new standard-bearer is named Clancy’s, located at the corner of Annunciation and Webster streets in a quiet, Uptown neighborhood where the houses are more reservedly tasteful than grand. For twenty-five  years, Clancy’s has been an upscale restaurant, but in an American city that will celebrate its 300th birthday in less than five years, that’s merely the blink of an eye.
            The simple frame building has been around since the beginning of the Twentieth Century and, in that time, it has sometimes housed a bar, sometimes a neighborhood café and sometimes a white tablecloth restaurant. Sometimes, like today, it’s been all three.
            Shortly after the end of World War II, the place was bought by a couple named Ed and Betty Clancy, who operated it as a neighborhood bar and poor boy shop virtually inseparable from the similar businesses that seemed to set up shop on every other corner of the Crescent City.
            In 1983, after more than thirty years of minding the store and with no heirs to whom the tavern cum café could be passed, the Clancys sold the business and the building to three businessmen who morphed the bar and restaurant into its current incarnation. About the only thing that didn’t change was the name, which was probably just as well. After all, Clancy’s is a grand Irish name for a saloon, and certainly an easier way to answer the telephone than with the name of the trio of new owners (“Good evening. Thank you for calling Slattern, Livaudais and Wagner’s”). Four years later, the trio sold out to a Brad Hollingsworth, who hand bootstrapped his way from the kitchen up to ownership and who remains one of the partners to this day.
            Clancy’s ultra-slick website proclaims the restaurant as “one of the first Creole Bistros which revolutionized the New Orleans dining scene in the 1980s and became a template for the most prevalent restaurant style in New Orleans today.” As a recovering ad writer myself, I certainly recognize overcooked copywriting when I smell it, and I can only hope such an egregious example of hyperbole is a more byproduct of unbridled corporate enthusiasm than a deliberate overlooking of accepted culinary history.
            The similarities between the two establishments are remarkable. Both are considerably less fussy than some of the grand old dowager restaurants with origins in times when the world was illuminated by gaslight. There is archetypical bentwood furniture, understated crockery and flatware, tuxedoed wait staffs with professional demeanors that border upon the patrician, the mirrors and brass coat hooks on the walls. When the linen wrapped loaf of bread arrived at the table at the start of the meal, I would have sworn it came from the same bakery that purveys to Galatoire’s.
            There are two key areas, however, in which the two restaurants diverge; the first being their physical layouts, and the second being the stages of each cuisine’s development.
            Instead of one substantial dining room, Clancy’s main room accommodates a modest thirteen tables, while another four tables occupy a subdued wine room separated by a galley-style bar containing about a dozen barstools. These smaller venues afford separate intimacies that cannot be found in the table-hopping, cocktail party din of the considerable more voluminous Galatoire’s.
            In terms of cuisine, the thirty year-old Clancy’s has the advantage of relative youth over its 108 year-old forerunner. While both kitchens have their roots in classic Creole cuisine, the cooking staff at Galatoire’s is virtually handcuffed by a hidebound clientele who greet the slightest change from the time-honored with at least suspicion if not outright scorn. By contrast, the food at Clancy’s is more contemporary, yet no so much revolutionary as evolutionary. New ideas, ingredients and techniques are integrated into the cooking, without straying into the eccentric self-indulgences that have proven the downfall of many overly “creative” albeit lesser talented chefs.
            Take for example the soft-shell crab. Before it is fried, it is smoked, which enhances the sweetness of the crabmeat while not overpowering it. On the surface, this is a remarkably simple idea, but in the intensity of a working commercial kitchen there comes a certain degree of difficulty in taking a foodstuff as intrinsically delicate as a soft-shell crab, essentially cooking it twice and not having it come out with the consistency of a pooch’s chew toy. Yet the smoked soft-shell produced by Clancy’s is not only sweet and smoky, but still exceptionally moist as well, and the sweetness becomes further enhanced once the whole thing is covered with even additional crabmeat.
            A fried oyster appetizer, another offering easily rubberized by lack of attention, retains its moistness and is lifted beyond the prosaic by the inspired addition melted Brie. A seared yet tender sea scallop is enhanced by foie gras and a deeply intense port reduction. All of this is serious cooking, based in classical Creole French ingredients and techniques, and flawlessly produced in what amounts to little more than a ramped up neighborhood bistro.
            While the owners of Clancy’s may take a small degree of umbrage to the comparison to Galatoire’s, or even take it as a compliment that it left-handed instead of right-minded, I cannot take credit for it. A reader of an earlier addition of this guidebook, in urging me to investigate Clancy’s referred to it as “the Uptown Galatoire’s,” and I’ve heard other draw the same conclusion over the years. It truly is an almost unassailable truth – and so it this:
            If New Orleans has a dirty little secret to the outside worlds, it’s that there exists a misanthropic element within the Uptown population that takes great pride in its muttered disdain for the French Quarter and the throngs of hungry visitors who make tourism the city’s largest industry following the Mississippi River port. What I find ironic is that it’s these selfsame hard-shelled crabs who make a table at the contemporized clone of Galatoire’s traditions one of the toughest reservations in town.
Now that I know about Clancy’s, I’m going to do all I can to make it even tougher for those hard-boiled bastards, and I encourage you to do the same.
It truly is a matter of good taste.

Creole French
6100 Annunciation Street (at Webster)
Dinner served Monday – Saturday, 5:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Lunch served Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
All major credit cards honored and
reservations emphatically recommended
Telephone: (504) 895-11112
Website: www.clancysneworleans.com

Photo Courtesy of Clancy's

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