A Creole Christmas

Snow is a food writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune and the co-author, with Kenneth Snow, of the guidebooks "Romantic Days and Nights in New Orleans" and "Access New Orleans."

I once did some writing for a children's encyclopedia, which is harder than it sounds, considering I was allotted just 200 words per entry to explain phenomena like "Washington, D.C." or "Aretha Franklin" to the average 10-year-old. Still, it prepared me for more daunting tasks, such as decoding the New Orleans restaurant scene for Christmas visitors.

For instance: Why do local aristocrats line up along a Bourbon Street sidewalk, in the midst of whooping barhoppers and strip-joint barkers, to wait for tables in a narrow dining room outfitted with hard chairs and unflattering lights? It's partly sentimental, since having your first grown-up meal at Galatoire's has been a rite of passage for well-heeled New Orleans children since 1905. But the main reason people wait in all weather--Galatoire's does not take reservations--is consistently great food presented in an atmosphere that never changes. (When the management switched from hand-chipped ice to cubes a few years ago, it caused a minor panic. Really, it even made the paper.)

Galatoire's is one of the last places in town serving authentic French Creole cuisine, unadulterated by blue potatoes or white-truffle oil. And it's presented by career waiters rather than moonlighting artistes, unflappable old retainers who'll grumble as they scrape crumbs off the table in front of some fierce dowager, "You're eating too much bread. You're going to ruin your lunch."

Unlike the rustic and vigorously spiced Cajun cooking of rural southwestern Louisiana, traditional New Orleans fare is city-sophisticated--unmistakably French, but deftly seasoned by generations of African and Caribbean cooks. It gets its name from the Creoles, the colonial offspring of Europeans.

The Reveillon (pronounced rev-ee-yohn) menu at Galatoire's is a study in the classics: shrimp remoulade or oysters en brochette, turtle soup or green salad with garlic, fish meuniere amandine or steak or lamb chops in Bearnaise or wine sauce.

Come at off hours to avoid the line. But if you're stuck, you'll be in good company. (A posted city ordinance warns patrons not to block the entrances of surrounding establishments, which during the busiest times gives the delicious impression that our grande dames are waiting to get into the shop next door that sells thong undies and spangled pasties.)

Around the corner on the much calmer Royal Street, Brennan's is another guardian of old-line Creole cuisine. It's also expensive, so its Reveillon is a particular bargain at $40, offering five courses of two or three choices each, a glass of wine, eggnog and coffee for slightly more than you'd usually pay for a dinner entree a la carte. The turtle soup is exemplary, as is the flaming finale, Bananas Foster, a Brennan's invention.

A graceful blend of old and new has earned countless accolades for the grand and glorious Commander's Palace, including a "lifetime outstanding restaurant" award from the James Beard Foundation and designation as the No. 1 restaurant choice in a 1997 poll of Food and Wine magazine readers. It is a Garden District landmark, a turreted turquoise-and-white Victorian mansion of sun-washed dining rooms.

Chef Jamie Shannon's Reveillon offers such updated classics as garlic-crusted redfish or a Louisiana cassoulet enriched by pheasant leg, duck and rabbit sausages. The bread pudding souffle is Commander's most popular dessert, but the fig and white chocolate pecan tart (served with white chocolate sauce and cream cheese ice cream) might tempt the faithful.

Farther up the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is the bright yellow facade of the Upperline Restaurant, a true New Orleans original. The three dining rooms are filled with fresh flowers and Southern folk art--and owner JoAnn Clevenger's big laugh. Service is smart but genial, and regulars range from French Quarter bohemians to Uptown Brahmins.

From the welcoming dish of deviled pecans and cheese straws to the vanilla custard "glazed with a hot poker," Clevenger's guests can relax in the warmest Louisiana hospitality. Among its other Reveillon menu treats are crispy duck confit with blackberry port jam, roast quail with sweet potato pecan casserole and a complimentary glass of Madeira.

Gabrielle, in the center of New Orleans near City Park, is another charmer, its lace-curtained windows overlooking the ancient oaks of Esplanade Avenue. Owners Greg and Mary Sonnier honed their skills in the kitchens of superchef Paul Prudhomme before establishing a national reputation of their own at this restaurant, named for their young daughter.

Here, Reveillon might begin with oysters and andouille (a Creole sausage) under a fried purple-potato crown, followed by grillades (veal cutlets) with roasted red pepper grits and black truffles, or pompano with fennel saffron cream.

True to its name, Maison de Ville is a historic French Quarter "town house" just steps away from some of the country's greatest restaurants. Even so, the hotel's guests are outnumbered by New Orleanians, tough customers indeed, in its tiny Parisian-style dining room, the Bistro. Belgian-born host Patrick Van Hoorebeek is a great favorite with local patrons, and the service is formal but warm, like the Old World comforts of red leather banquettes, dark woods, beveled glass mirrors and Impressionist-style paintings.

Chef Greg Picolo is a Louisiana native, and his Reveillon menu is a five-course feast of chic comfort food, from his crawfish fritters to confit of duck with wild mushroom corncake, sauteed greens and apple-fennel compote. His Creole plum pudding with Calvados custard sauce suits the season, but Picolo's silky creme bru^lee is the best I've ever eaten--not to be missed.

At nearby Broussard's, German-born chef-owner Gunter Preuss will present a Creolized version of holiday standards from his homeland, such as smoked pork loin (on sauerkraut with onion mashed potatoes and an unexpected jolt of sauce piquante) and veal Holstein (with the traditional potato cake and garnish of fried egg). The entryway of his 75-year-old French Quarter restaurant is still framed by the original hand-painted tiles depicting buxom kitchen angels--nude beneath strategically placed aprons--busy at making wine, roasting pigs and doing other culinary good deeds. The formal dining rooms are plush with French period furnishings and gilt mirrors. In the Magnolia Room, set in the former stable with its beamed ceiling and rustic tile floor, tall brick archways frame a glass wall that runs the length of the courtyard.

Just outside, hundreds of tiny white bulbs twinkle through the wisteria vines and banana trees, with tips of the modern skyline visible in the distance.

Yes, it's trendy, but multicultural cuisine is as old as New Orleans, where Creole food evolved in a colony that was established by French and Spanish settlers, then seasoned by waves of European and African immigrants. Some of the city's newer restaurants have stirred the flavors of Asia and the American Southwest into that melting pot, creating high-gloss chow for a cosmopolitan clientele.

My favorite is Mike's on the Avenue, a bright and contemporary beauty in the Lafayette Hotel on the edge of the Warehouse/Arts District. Chef Mike Fennelly came to New Orleans from Santa Fe's celebrated Santacafe, adding Louisiana to his East-meets-West claim to fame. His Reveillon is a set feast of eggnog-crab-and-Brie soup, Creole-roasted quail with chayote and shrimp dressing, pomegranate- and rosemary-grilled lamb chop, praline chocolate tart, wine and coffee.

The most extensive Reveillon menu, with more than 20 items, has been posted by the dapper Pelican Club. The French Quarter hideaway done up in city-cool decor showcases chef-owner Richard Hughes, a New Orleans native who polished his style in the Big Apple. His Reveillon ranges from turtle-and-alligator soup, to pan-seared foie gras with arugula, to grilled red-deer loin chops, to jambalaya "served in its own pot." And seven desserts.

The latest arrival on the chic-restaurant scene is the Metro Bistro, in the Pelham Hotel downtown. It is attracting quite a following for its weekday "blue plate" lunches of three stylish courses for under $10. The Reveillon menu looks appealing as well, especially the duck consomme with root vegetable dumpling and the pan-seared salmon with roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Techy lighting and earthy hues warm up the 1850 building, with its towering windows and 14-foot ceilings supported by the original cast-iron columns.

A couple of other important restaurants bear mention even though they aren't participating in the Reveillon promotion, especially since both offer early evening specials (as do many of the Reveillon participants) that are a major bargain at any time of year.

Frank Brigsten was anointed best chef in the Southeast for 1998 by the James Beard Foundation. His Brigsten's is in a homey cottage in Riverbend, a few blocks from the end of St. Charles Avenue; telephone (504) 861-7610. This protege of Prudhomme--some say Brigsten has surpassed the master--offers three-course specials year-round, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, for $14.95. The specials menu changes weekly, but the celebrated house-made ice creams and banana bread pudding with rum sauce are usually part of the deal.

Susan Spicer has won awards and renown for her self-styled "New World cuisine" at Bayona, set in a 19th century cottage in the French Quarter; tel. (504) 525-4455. Her "pre-theater" special--three courses for $25--is always available Monday through Saturday at the 6 p.m. seating.

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GUIDEBOOK: Menu Sampler

Reveillon: Thirty-two restaurants will serve specially priced holiday dinners in addition to their regular menus Dec. 1-27; some continue through Jan. 1. And some are closed Dec. 24, 25 or 31 or Jan. 1. Reservations are essential.

The following, in the $30-$45 range, are noted in the accompanying article:

The Bistro at Maison de Ville, 727 Toulouse St., telephone (504) 528-9206.

Brennan's, 417 Royal St., tel. (504) 525-9711.

Broussard's, 819 Conti St., tel. (504) 581-3866.

Commander's Palace, 1403 Washington Ave., tel. (504) 899-8221.

Gabrielle, 3201 Esplanade Ave., tel. (504) 948-6233.

Galatoire's, 209 Bourbon St., tel. (504) 525-2021. (No reservations.)

Metro Bistro, 200 Magazine St., tel. (504) 529-1918.

Mike's on the Avenue, 628 St. Charles Ave., tel. (504) 523-1709.

The Pelican Club, 312 Exchange Alley, tel. (504) 523-1504.

Upperline Restaurant, 1413 Upperline St., tel. (504) 891-9822.

For more information: A free list of all the Reveillon menus is available from French Quarter Festivals, 100 Conti St., New Orleans, LA 70130; tel. (800) 673-5725; fax (504) 522-5711.

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