A few years ago, Archie Casmarian, owner of the landmark Arnaud's restaurant, est. 1905, paid a lot of money to a Houston food consultant to create a "Heart Healthy" version of the restaurant's famous Creole menu -- "a sort of Creole Lite," he was going to call it.
The venture was short-lived.
"My customers said, 'Have you lost your mind? We come to you for all that butter and cream. If we want to diet, we'll do it at home.' "
Casmarian learned a lesson: "Trends come and go, but New Orleans cuisine just keeps chugging along. I love it for that."
New Orleans, "The City That Care Forgot," clings proudly to the cuisine that time forgot, its huge portions, rich sauces and decadent desserts, be they in the Creole tradition of the seafood gumbo at Arnaud's, the Cajun "paneed" (breaded) rabbit at Brigtsen's or the traditional French Poulet Rochambeau at Galatoire's.
In New Orleans, even the po' boys are rich: The foot-long, full-pound sandwiches, named for the snacks that sympathetic restaurant chefs handed out their back doors to struggling workers idled in a long-ago railway strike, routinely tote a day's worth of calories and fat. At Mother's Restaurant on Poydras Street, est. 1938, the Ferdi Special, at $7.50, is a whole loaf of French bread stuffed with baked ham, roast beef and "debris" - the chunks and juice that fall into the pan when beef is roasting, topped with shredded cabbage and Creole mustard.
"When you come here, you'd better be ready to loosen your belt and eat," says Jyl Benson, an organizer of the city's annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. "I don't see any trend toward lighter cuisine in New Orleans."
Bucking tradition isn't easy. At July's Wine and Food event, a group of new, cutting-edge local chefs was paraded, almost like performing chimps, before a sold-out seminar, to explain themselves. Courageously, they demonstrated their attempts at a new cuisine in New Orleans. Randy Lewis, of Indigo, presented a delicate, fruity watermelon gazpacho. John Harris, of Lilette, brought chilled mussels with arugula and fava beans. Frank Brunachi, of Victor's at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans, showed off an intriguing, custard-like tuna tartare with cauliflower remoulade and vanilla oil.
But Tom Wolfe, of Wolfe's, lamented: "Anyone trying to open a new-style restaurant has hard going. People like the traditional dishes. You have to appease them, then try to educate them."
Lewis concurred: "I include local dishes to get people in, then try to educate them to my cuisine."
Nobody takes food lightly in New Orleans. Strike up a conversation with the locals and it won't be about politics or the weather, only about food. Is K-Paul's too spicy? Is Arnaud's coasting on its reputation?
"People here are very serious about food - very," says Yvette Cressend, a local restaurant aficionado. She and her husband belong to two food websites - one to openly share dining tips on restaurants they frequent, a second one password-protected so they can be more candid with a small group of friends without offending the city's restaurant owners, many of whom they know personally.
Moves at change tend to be less toward fewer calories than to more casual atmospheres -- a shift of watershed proportions in a city whose locals tend to overdress for dinner, even on sweltering summer days. Arnaud's, where jackets are required after 5 p.m., has spun off Remoulade next door, a casual eatery with an easy dress code and a long mahogany bar serving Creole Sausage Pizza at $8.50 and Natchitoches Meat Pie at $7.95.