The Breakfast Bunch on South Louisiana Eats & Eateries

For the first time, I read Alan Richman's stinging critique of New Orleans dining in GQ Magazine. It was published several years ago, but after Katrina.  No article about New Orleans has inspired such vitriolic attacks from the people of the Crescent City.  New Orleans circled the wagons as it often does when its culture (even if it's contrived, and it is, though I'm not rejecting it) is under attack. For that reason, I was alarmed at just how much I agree with some of his most heretical attacks on New Orleans (and in some cases Louisiana culinary orthodoxy): roux (what's the point?), french bread (its not french, and barely bread), and over seasoning of subtle ingredients (If you're going to treat frog legs or crab as if it is chicken, with seasoning that over powers the subtle flavor--which chicken doesn't have, why even bother using them?  Just buy chicken.)

His great line on how many New Orleans desserts survived Katrina: they were too heavy to float away.  And he is right that most bread puddings I've tasted aren't worth eating.  Every now and then you'll come across a good one—Richman named Commander's Palace as having a helluva good bread pudding.  (Paul Prudhomme created it several decades ago.)

There's a lot to like about food in New Orleans.  But there's a helluva lot more to dislike.  But it is heaven in comparison to Baton Rouge (chain, chain, chain.)

Lafayette (and the surrounding area) beats them both in taste, authenticity, and quality.

Have I ever professed how much I despise "French bread."?  I ought not to go down that road.  

But, because Alan Richman and his article were so hated in New Orleans, I find myself a dispirited self-loather after having read it.

I abhor "French Bread," preach constantly about the uselessness of the roux in much of Louisiana's cuisine (ask anyone in my family), and 99.9% of gumbos made in this state are s**t (and share the same color too often.)

I may need therapy, or some sort of re-education camp (Soviet style.)

Korey

I read that Lafayette has been selected by some self appointed food rating agency has having the best food in the country.

 If I am given a last meal, before I am reaped by the grim one, let it be trout meuniere at Arnaud’s preceded by Shrimp Arnaud and followed with crème brulee…and of course a side of puff potatoes with hollandaise. 

 And, me, I like Jay’s barbeque, yes.  So keep shut ‘bout Baton Rouge, you.

 Ward

Jay's is decent fare for the price. And it isn't burdened with the tribulations of chain eateries. 


Note that trout meuniere is classical French, not "creole". As are souffleed or puffed potatoes.  Creme brulee, too. 

You just eat them in a North American restaurant. 

My last meal would revolve around perfectly fried shrimp.  preceded by some seared foie gras.  and then a simple dessert of a ripe banana with Nutella.  Unless I had the time and forewarning to plan a 30 course extravaganza socially acceptable only in Rome as the Empire fell. 

Korey

Most bread pudding is presented as if a dog had upchucked on it. The best bread pudding is to be found at the Cafe Bon Ton, corner Magazine and Poydras. It’s a chunk of hot raison bread floating in a pond of butter and booze and brown sugar. When you order it, be sure you tell the waitress to heat up the sauce so that it is really hot. She will invariably say this will curdle the sauce and will argue with you. When she does, tell her “You are very close to not getting a tip.” When she correctly serves the bread pudding, be careful because it will make sane people do very strange things.  Prior to the main course, order the turtle soup.  Pour a lot of sherry into the soup, but do not stir it. You will note that the sherry floats on the top of the soup like an oil slick. In this case it is a sherry slick. Take your spoon and gently shove it perpendicularly into the soup, and as you angularly raise the spoon make sure the sherry slick in on top of the soup that’s in your spoon. Thus the sherry will touch your palate first, exciting the taste buds so that you truly enjoy a really fine meal. Oh, you must continually replenish the sherry, of course, as you enjoy your soup. Be very liberal in this regard, to the point that once you are done with this appetizer it really doesn’t matter what the rest of the meal tastes like. Being smashed, you won’t care.

Dan

On Dan's recommendation, I told my first thesis advisor about the Cafe Bon Ton.  He was visiting New Orleans for an academic conference.  I gather that he took one group after another, night after night, to the Cafe Bon Ton and he ordered a different main course each evening.  Though I don't often eat in New Orleans and I had no basis for comparison, I did score some points thanks to Dan's recommendation.

Len

You bring back very happy memories.  In 1967, I worked at International City Bank on St. Charles about three blocks from Bon Ton.  Those were days when bankers and brokers took three hour lunches at Bon Ton, Kolbs, etc.  The turtle soup – a must. Another great turtle soup was at the restaurant in the back of Holmses on Canal.  In those days old ladies, probably including Thelma Toole, came in with white gloves on for lunch. 

There was once life on earth.

Ward

Very good advice.  I will try it out next time I'm eating in New Orleans.

About 6 months ago I ordered the turtle soup at Flemings.  I was there under duress; I wasn't in the mood for a steak.  I figured the turtle soup was a safe choice.  The "sherry" served to me tasted like rubbing alcohol.  It spoiled a mediocre soup.  Such a shame.

Plenty of sherry is a good thing, as long as it is sherry.

Korey

There is good food and bad food and much mediocre, yet subtly overpriced, food in New Orleans. I have to admit that, if I would spend the kind of money that a really good meal in N.O. commands, I would rather spend it in Baton Rouge. I like Juban's, Mike Anderson's (especially the one in Gonzales), Boutin's, Mansur's, to name a few, and can enjoy a very good meal at any of them for a fraction of the price of most of the more popular and well-hyped restaurants in N.O. That said, I have to admit that, Philistine that I am, my favorite N.O. restaurant is R. & O.'s in Buck Town on Lakeshore Drive. The "red gravy" is great!

Probably as a matter of my wife's nativity (Kaplan) and the good stuff that she and her late father produced, I have come to prefer the cajun flour roux in gumbos and fricassees to the tomato/okra of the creole equivalents. Mary asked her father over and over for his gumbo recipe and he finally gave in and gave it to her. It consisted of the following, "You got to make it tick!" Such wisdom is hard to find among the sophisticates of N.O. haute cuisine!

Bon Appetit!

Ben

I will have to add R & Os to my list of places to try.  

Korey

Mary speaks forth to recommend Cafe Maspero's, Napoleon House and Mother's to the list of really good, reasonably priced N.O. restaurants. I can vouch for the first on the list, especially their muffalato (undoubtedly misspelled). I recently had a very good meal at the Copeland's on Essen after refusing to eat there for more than a decade because of one evening of dreadful service and uncooked seafood that was supposed to be cooked!

The Louisiana Division of the United States Fencing Association met in early August to plan the fencing tournament season. The Louisiana Division is actually the I-10 corridor, so we usually meet in Baton Rouge or my house in Geismar. I’m no longer an officer of the Division, but as the head of the Baton Rouge Fencing Club, I am the head of “one of the five families,” and am therefore invited as a matter of respect. The officers are mostly N.O. folks, so they recommended Copeland's in B.R. Everyone was very pleased with their meal. I had crab cakes on angel hair with a spicy shrimp cream sauce. On the strength of that one dish, all has been forgiven, and Copeland's has been added back onto the list of restaurants that I like.

Ben

Copelands: I swore it off about 6 years ago as well.  Seafood was soggy.  But I'm in the business of second chances for restaurants. Seafood selection in BR is sparse as it is.  There's Mike Anderson's...and not a whole lot else.

My favorite restaurant in Baton Rouge is The Bay Leaf on Sherwood, but I love Indian cuisine.  Not everyone is fond of Indian cuisine.

Korey

Give Boutin's a try. It is on Bluebonnet where Mulate's used to be long ago. It remind's me of another favorite Prejean's on I-49 north of Lafayette. Prejean's is a bit better but a lot more expensive. Both have good seafood. Our current favorite local seafood place is Gulfnet Seafood on LA Hwy 621 between Hwy 73 and Airline. They have really good, and really fresh seafood, good gumbos and shrimp stew, great catfish, sliced in fat strips instead of those flat, hard boards that you get at restaurants so often these days. Their boiled shrimp and crawfish are nice as well.

I love the Bay Leaf, as well. Every time I eat there I want to go home and make a curry. Their veggie lentil soup is outstanding. They are supposed to offer a really great Sunday Buffet, but we haven’t tried it yet.

Ben

On the 22nd of September there is a lecture at the Old Governor’s Mansion by a grandson of Ruth Futrell on a book he has written on the blue plate specials of Louisiana.  My favorite is Thursday chicken and dumplings at Poor Boy Lloyd’s using the recipe that waitress Mary brought over from the Brunswick when it closed.  She has been dishing it up for forty plus years.

Ward

Man... I'm on the tail end of this (I detest ox-tail soup), but let me jump in anyway.

First, a 'roux' is to make it 'tick'.  And it's a cajun affection, nor creole or french.  Really, it's an extender, — like rice to make a meal with small portions of meat filling—and cheap, to build up the base of the sauce.  Secondly, the roux is used to make the whole house smell like cooking and get the family gastronomically worked up for the evening fare!  Browning onions for the fricassee does the same thing (you DON'T use a roux in a fricassee).  (full disclosure - I use a roux to start my spaghetti gravy :P ).

I DETEST jambalaya that is red.  Jambalaya is NOT RED.  Anyone that puts tomatoes in jambalaya should be shot - with Japanese Tallow Tree balls, propelled from a slingshot - until he is dead, or recants.  If he used tomatoes, even just once, in a jambalaya, I'd duct-tape his mouth so there can be no recant!  

Fleming's is owned by one of my former Marines.  I'll pass on the complaint.  Actually, I find the fare and service there excellent—much better than Sullivan's or Ruth's Chris.  But, I have no taste for wine—including sherry.  Besides my experience with turtle soup extends from Mr Olinde enlisting me to gather turtles from the ditch with him behind the old mule barn at Cinclare where we both worked.  the next day he'd come to work with ample turtle soup for everyone.  No sherry, and I've never had anything as remotely good at any restaurant.  So, I just don't order it anymore.

My favorite restaurant in New Orleans is the Palace Cafe.  The Brennans train their chefs there and develop new menu items and the food is much cheaper than the other Brennan feed lots.  I never order off the menu there, but tell the waiter to have the chef prepare me what the chef had for dinner or any new recipe they want to try out.  Sometimes, they'll bring out a menu item—but mostly I get pleasant surprises.  I also like Irene's on St Philip.  For an out of towner, the first place I like to bring them is Mandina's (on Canal - not that place in Gretna) for a taste of old New Orleans.  Christians' is, alas, no longer.  Lunch places are Elizabeth's on Chartres; Katie’s on Iberville or Liuzza's on Bienville—or maybe vice-versa; hell, they're only two blocks apart.  A stop a Brocatto's for canoli will really round out your day.  

A trip down the river to Hymel's is always worth it.

Baton Rouge staples are Jubans, Parrain's & Dons.  Mike Anderson's hasn't been good since it left Highland Road.  Gawd, I miss the Mirror Steakhouse, Europes, the Caterie and (help me Ward - what was the name of the german place on Convention street?).

Couv

On a Roux and use of tomatoes in jambalaya I could not agree more. As to turtle soup, the best I ever had was in Melbourne, Australia. I haven't tried Flemings yet, Reports have it as rather expensive. I also miss the Mirror Steak House, but doubt very much if I would go there anymore given its original Airline location. I used to love their stuffed lobster. For steak, I miss Mike & Tony's up on Scenic Highway. I used to live right around the corner and did some photography for them in the mid-70s. My contract was, "whenever you want a good steak, just come by at lunch time and we'll give you one.” Probably the best deal I ever got in my brief photography career, and I took advantage of it occasionally for about a year. The cook would do me up a porterhouse and a baked potato. 

I also miss Pinetta's back in the good old days when Momma was in the kitchen and Dub, the surly singing waiter with the heart of gold was still alive. Loved the anchovies and crackers appetizer (just a can of really good Portuguese anchovies, sliced onions, capers, butter and crackers), the schnitzel Holstein, and the meatballs and spaghetti. If you asked for ketchup, Dub would give you “the look,” and bring you an iron skillet with hot red sauce. Wonderful. 

For my money, Mike Anderson's is better in Gonzales than in B.R.

Ben

Black Forest on North Blvd.?  Renada came from Germany in the 70s and, of course, started her restaurant downtown where, in Germany, all the action is.  Well, there was no night or weekend business, but she made a living off of her weekday lunch business.  I have always admired her.  She sold to some Vietnamese and now I think there is an Arab place there.  She married a prof. from Grambling and has a well earned respite.

I had dinner one night in a hotel in Tokyo that had installed Talking Signs.  Very high end.  The Chinese restaurant had Peking Duck “four pieces, skin” $25.  I figured something was lost in the translation, but when it came out it was four pieces of skin fired sitting in the middle of a big white plate.  Not even good cracklins.

Ward

Nope.  It was on the corner of convention and 7th.  When I started going there it was run by Christina and her sister, Maria.  they'd taken it over from their dad who was a German WWII soldier (MAX!) who emigrated to the US.

Couv

I agree on the jambalaya.  And I refuse to eat the jambalaya mixes that come in bags or boxes.  They are too poor a substitute; fix something else or make the real deal jambalaya.

As to the subject of roux, it is a classic building block of classical French cuisine (sauces), including pastry sauces and pastry creme.  But it is never cooked to the degree that we see in Louisiana cuisine.  As the cooking continues, the starch of the flour continues to break down.  The more it is cooked, the less thickening ability it has.  In classical French cooking, the sole purpose of the roux is to thicken.  I've found that the thickness of gumbo is only slightly thicker or more viscous than water, which undercuts the traditional purpose of the roux.  This is why I surmised that the roux must have had some other purpose in cajun cooking other than the reason it was created in its earliest form in the 14th century.  Originally it was butter and pulverized bread crumbs rather than flour.  It was "invented" by Guillaume Tirel Taillevent (1310-1395), head chef to The Dauphin, then the Duke of Normandy; Charles V, and finally Charles VI, who commissioned him to author one of the earliest cookbooks around 1380, which is often referred to as Le Viandier.

That cookbook circulated for almost two centuries among the chefs of noblemen, and was influential until the mid 16th century when French cuisine underwent its first "modernization"--when Henry II married Catherine de Medici she brought Florentine chefs with her.  Western cooking was never the same.  Prior to the Florentine influence, there was no demarcation between savory and sweet.  Think of ordering a porterhouse steak that is coated with a cinnamon and ginger flavored sugar sauce with a side of potatoes swimming in a sweet custard.  The Florentine influence changed that and that insistence on separating savory from sweet survives to this day (there are always exceptions...ham goes well with a brown sugar sauce, etc....)   In the event, one of the four surviving copies was rediscovered in 1892 and was republished for its historic value.  

And finally, on the topic of Sullivans....I only dine there if someone insists and I'm not the one footing the bill.  I spend freely on food and wine when the quality justifies it; but I don't find a cost-benefit analysis of Sullivans to justify eating there.

My favorite restaurants tend to be located outside of our "big cities".  Hymel's is a great example.  The Grapevine in Donaldsonville is another.  The Steamboat in Washington (the small town in Acadiana) also another.  My Momma's Place in New Roads also spectacular (except the sweet potato gratin--the inclusion of pureed bananas is obscene and for me is one step too far in blurring that line between sweet and savory.)

We must never forget what Napoleon said, though he was admittedly no gourmand--he rarely gave a dinner more than 15 minutes and the Empress Josephine was so conscious of her bad teeth she did not host dinners-- "There is but one step from the sublime to the absurd."

Korey

Korey, normally I agree about Jambalaya mixes, but Mary has discovered one that is made down here in Gonzales (the self-proclaimed Jambalaya capital of the world, after all). It's called Jody's, and the only place we have seen it is at the Harvest supermarket here in Dutchtown. I is nearly as good as Mary's dad's, which is saying something! We eat it about once a week or so, and it is really good stuff, tasting jus' like the real ting! I believe that Jody is a Gonzales Jambalaya Fest cook off winner.

French roux are for texture and flavor, are often butter based and are considered the basis for, I believe, most of the sauces. As Couv notes, Cajuns employed the roux as filler as well as thickeners because, well, they were poor and flour was pretty cheap. The roux, cooked brown real slow, added flavor and thickener, and a nutty, nearly meaty flavor. It is interesting to me the extent of carbs that are present in a traditional cajun meal. Whenever we eat at someone's house in Kaplan, there is the gumbo or stew based on a flour roux, rice, potato salad (sometimes served right in the middle of the gumbo), and white bread. Even barbecue still is served with rice and gravy and potato salad. A sort of marathon runner's  carb loadup. I suspect that it is not only a generations-old fusion of provincial French and German based foods, but also a very heavy mix of food for people who don't have much money but DO have a lot of hard work to do. In the American West and Midwest similar results were obtained with biscuits and red-eye gravy, potatoes and corn, with beef or pork, which was much more plentiful in the West and Midwest. Cheap, hearty food to fuel hard work.

Ben

That is an interesting observation.  I figured a historian would be the most likely to come up with a suggestion.  The comparison to the biscuits and red-eye gravy is spot on.

I will stop by Harvest supermarket next time I'm headed into Gonzales and find some of that Jambalaya mix.

Korey

I was taking my thousandth plus ride down River Road tonight and had an envie for BBQ ribs.  I have passed Cou-yon’s (crazy man’s) many times but this time I stopped.  If you want BBQ you want meat, not coleslaw or beans or whatever, so I went for the meat-only at $6.50.  Half spare ribs (2) and half brisket…”moist” which means lots of saturated fat…”marbling”, how nice.  DE licious.  Regular and sweet sauce with kosher pickle slices and raw onion rings and a piece of Texas toast to sop up the sauce.  A PBR is a buck.  Got out for ten bucks including a $2.00 tip.  Sated.

.Cou-yon’s has two locations that I know of.  One at the corner of Burbank and Gardere in the Shell station.  The one I went to is in the first mega apartment complex just south of LSU on Nicholson on the left. 

Ward

After reading all these critiques and suggestions about restaurants and south Louisiana cuisine, I guess it’s time I chime in… First of course, is the commentary about a roux and the importance (or lack of understanding the importance…) of it… I’m not sure how anyone can question the value of a roux in cooking. It’s an essential ingredient in any good gravy, gumbo, etouffee etc.. Adding flavor, tone, color, texture, consistency etc… I cannot imagine making my duck/Andouille or seafood gumbos without my roux… It would be like going to Red Lobster…

Re: restaurants… Several come to mind in New Orleans; Tujagues and Arnauds are my favorites.. Muriels @ Jackson Square also…I had one of the best steaks in years at Dickie Brennans, however this was some ago…  For poboys, Domilises and Parasols without a doubt.. Mandina’s has an excellent Turtle soup (and I never put put sherry in Turtle soup). Antoine’s use to have an excellent turtle soup but I haven’t been there in years for obvious reasons…

 Locally, you can’t go wrong with DiGiulios, Pinetta’s or Gino’s for Italian fare…I think the steak houses (Flemings, Sullivan’s and Ruth Chris) are all the same… Jubans has gone downhill. Louisiana Lagniappe is still excellent but a long wait.. and I’ve had a great dinner at Stroube’s downtown…For a different type of fare, Mestizo’s is one of my favorites.. TexMex with great Louisiana/Cajun influence…plus the greatest Mojito’s anywhere…

 That’s my two cents… 

ld

I'm not down on Louisiana cuisine in general, whether cajun or "creole."  But I have a problem with many restaurants in Louisiana and I've had trouble putting my finger on what it is.  I thought about the places I love and would dine at on any occasion, less opulent and casual places I would choose over a restaurant like Juban's.  I must admit, I've given up on the place after one too many over-cooked soft-shell crabs (one was damned near black.....who could serve that to a customer without at least a grimace as the plate is lowered...or when it's taken away 20 minutes later with the crab missing just one of his tiny legs?)

Anyway, the much-maligned culinary review of New Orleans in GQ Magazine elucidated it for me.  The author was down on the up-scale and expensive Bayona restaurant but applauded Upperline restaurant and Liuzza's by the Track.  Bold emphasis is mine, and it answers the question of why I love Roberto's in St. Gabriel, The Grapevine in Donaldsonville, The Steamboat in Washington, etc.:

Upperline is a sweet-looking, yellow-brick spot that manages to pull off what few other restaurants have accomplished—honoring culinary history without becoming trite. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t try to be haute. The local art on display, collected by owner JoAnn Clevenger, is moving, and Upperline’s interpretations of famous dishes seem charming rather than hackneyed. It’s the place to go if you want fried green tomatoes, shrimp rémoulade, or, if you must, honey-pecan bread pudding. The desserts weren’t distinguished, but they were warm, homespun, and comforting, always a successful concept.

Korey

Mary and I are still quite fond of Juban’s. My favorite activity there is to order three or four appetizers off of the menu and just eat them. They are usually very good and more than enough food for two. Soft-shell crab is tricky. Fry it too long and it’s black and hard, too little and it is soggy. Used to love the soft-shell crab poboy at Phil’s Oyster Bar before they moved away from government street and died.

Ben

Roberto’s is absolutely a jewel and one of my favorites also…

ld


Awwww.  Don’t you like those soft shell crabs with the cute little claws expressing a culinary hallelujah? No one has mentioned Joe Dryfus’ Store.  They were closed but I hear they are open again.

Ward

Yes.  In Livonia.  Good food.  Unpretentious. I wish they still fried their catfish whole, allowing you to pick the flesh from the bones.  Fish is like any other meat.  Its flavor is heightened when cooked on the bone.

The vicious march of the trial lawyers through the American consciousness has even reached remote areas of Cajun country.  There was a more beautiful time in this country when people would've assumed that death from choking on the bone of a catfish was not only God's way of reaching out and touching you, but, in a society that loves its food, one of the "ways to go."

There was a time when I could interpret the pose in such a way.

Now, it is the sad sight of the once noble crab surrendering to his torturers.

Korey

Actually, I always looked at it as the crabs expressing, “goddamn that hurts!!!!”

Larry