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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

Friday, June 22, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Acme Oyster House

Nonetheless, I like Acme. Warts and all.

I’m not going to try and talk you out of visiting the Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter. You’ll go there. Hell, everybody does at one time or another.

Whether or not Acme is the most famous restaurant in New Orleans is open to debate, as is just about everything else when it comes to Crescent City dining. I’m not sure anyone would put up too much of a fight were it suggested that Acme would certainly find a place in the top five.

With the rise of The Food Network, The Travel Channel and all the other television programming dedicated to the culinary arts, the number of famous restaurants has expanded multifold. Prior to the media explosion, there was dinner at Antoine’s, breakfast at Brennan’s, blackened redfish at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, beignets at Café du Monde and bivalves at Acme. 

Committed epicures and corporate road warriors may have been able to come up with a slightly longer list that included Galatoire’s or Commander’s Palace, but places now considered American classics like Mosca’s, Central Grocery and Willie Mae’s Scotch House would scarcely garner mentions. All that is now ancient history, of course, but including Acme in a top five of recognizable names is probably still a safe bet.

In fact, Acme’s fame is such that, for decades, it has been part of an old Crescent City axiom that it only takes the answers to three simple questions for a native New Orleanian to size up someone:  Democrat or Republican? Catholic or Protestant? Felix’s or Acme?

All that said, what’s terribly sad is that while Acme deserves its place on any list of famous New Orleans restaurants, it no longer has the chops to be famous for its food. Acme has become the Kim Kardashian of restaurants; it’s now famous for being famous and not much else beyond unrelenting media hyperbole.

Since opening around the corner in 1910 (its current location dates back to 1924), Acme has always been famous for one thing: oysters on the half shell. They gloriously are plump, briny and slide down your throat as they should, but that’s due more to the oyster itself than what any shucker, at Acme or anywhere else, adds to the process.

This is not to disparage the shucker’s art in any way. These guys (and occasionally women, too) don’t wear a chain mail glove for nothing. Opening an oyster requires a knife designed for the task, a certain amount of manual strength, a sharp eye and a steady hand to avoid opening a vein in the shucker’s forearm. While most mere mortals usually tire after a dozen or two, a first-rate shucker can work for hours on end and is regarded with admiration and respect. Indeed, hotly contested shucking competitions are the highlight of many a festival across south Louisiana throughout the spring and fall.

In a city where the great restaurants set trends, Acme doggedly pursues them. A number of years ago, when sushi and sashimi were all the rage, Acme slapped a dash of wasabi and scallion on top of a bivalve on the half shell and tried to market it as “Cajun Sushi.” It didn’t stay on the menu long. More recently, Acme added Chargrilled Oysters, which was developed by Tommy Cvitanovich of Metairie-based Drago’s restaurant in 1993 and been widely hailed as the biggest New Orleans culinary development since Paul Prudhomme blackened his first redfish in the late 1970s. Oysters on the half shell are brushed with garlic butter, sprinkled with a blend of Parmesan and Romano cheeses and cooked on a hot grill. Derivative variations of the chargilled gems have become a mainstay of numerous restaurants citywide.
One of the great city traditions used to be to duck through Acme’s front door, where the actual working oyster bar is on the right. Over the bar is a large mirror angled so people all over the place can watch several shuckers at work. People lucky enough to find a placedirectly on front of the bar get to see the action firsthand. The drill couldn’t be more straightforward. Order a dozen or two, slurp them down, pay and go. While it’s for all practical purposes obsolete, the loss of such a tradition evokes waves of nostalgia from aging regulars.

For people yet to understand and fully appreciate the unbridled joys of devouring a dozen or two on the half shell, Acme has a menu made up for the most part of forgettable renditions of New Orleans standards. It’s the usual suspects: jambalaya, red beans and rice, seafood etouffee, fried seafood platters, poor boy sandwiches and gumbos. While none of them are inedible, all of them suffer by, first, coming out of the kitchen of restaurant dedicated to food that isn’t prepared in a conventional kitchen and, secondly, being surrounded by restaurants forced to make it based on their kitchens rather than their fame.

The gumbo and soups are available in a “poopa,” a name I would guess the establishment coined for a bowl fashioned out of French bread. Having tried it, I can tell you it’s a better idea when the bread is fresh than when it’s the least bit stale. Trust me, I’ve had it both ways.

Not terribly long ago, I was bored brainless and watching one of these foodie TV shows that features food from varying restaurants, when lo and behold, up popped Acme. The item they decided to promote on national television was “boo fries,” no doubt another homebrewed term, which appears to be a plate of ordinary fries slathered with beef gravy and cheese. It’s not a bad combination, really, but hardly original. It’s been served on French bread as a poor boy sandwich for years at the venerable Parkway Bakery & Tavern in Mid-City.
Poor, poor, Acme. After an enviable century, this Crescent City institution is in the process of squandering its senses of heritage, tradition and self and becoming little more than another tourist trap with a name that used to stand for something. Beyond the justifiably celebrated oysters, the food standards have drifted downward into mediocrity. Ridiculously long lines have stripped the place of any charm it once had. They’ve even tried to re-position a particularly lousy alcove as “Poets’ Corner” in a woefully transparent effort to pass it off as something more than a last resort backroom that most customers avoid until the rest of the house is jammed. More care seems to be taken with the branded merchandise for sale than anything else. It’s just damned sad, period.

Nonetheless, I like Acme. Warts and all. I’ve been haunting the place for over forty years, and while recent visits have yielded little more than disappointments, I refuse to give up on the joint.

If the day ever returns when I’m walking down Iberville Street and don’t see a line promising more than an hour’s wait for five minutes of bliss with a dozen on the shell and a cold one, I’ll contemplate once again becoming a regular. Until that day, however, the line will be one person shorter.

But when you come to the city, make sure you take my place and get the dozen oysters that ought to have my name on them. After all, until you’ve been to Acme, you haven’t been to New Orleans.

Acme Oyster House 
Oyster Bar 
724 Iberville (Between Bourbon and Royal Streets) 
Serving Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.,
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. -11 p.m. 
All major credit cards are accepted,
but reservations are not
Telephone: (504) 533-5973
Website: www.acmeoyster.com

Photos: Courtesy Acme Oyster House, Matt O@yelp.com and JocelynO@yelp.com

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