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.
The Brennan family, owners of Commander's Palace, another jackets-no-jeans redoubt, has opened Red Fish Grill, which doesn't require jackets but still bans tank tops and serves such casual fare as barbecued alligator legs and a shrimp and bacon club sandwich.
In part, the consistency is because so many New Orleans restaurants have been run by the same families for decades. Galatoire's has been in the same family since 1905. The Brennan family, which arrived in 1947 to found Brennan's on Royal Street, later Commander's Palace in the Garden District, now has eight, third-generation cousins running eight restaurants here, including Dickie Brennan's Steak House, the Palace Café, BACCO and Mr. B's Bistro.
It's not that a determined dieter can't get a low-calorie meal in New Orleans. Even at Arnaud's, Casmarian's wife and co-owner, Jane, took 30 points off her cholesterol level recently by dining on poached fish and grilled veggies from the menu.
But it would take a discipline that would seem rare among the New Orleanians or the tourists who, after all, come for the Reubenesque cuisine. One can picture any serious threat of change being met by some culinary George Wallace striding onto the steps of, say, Commander's Palace and proclaiming: "Bearnaise today, Bearnaise tomorrow, Bearnaise forever!"
They say even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had to stand in line at Galatoire's. They say U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnson, waiting in line, was summoned inside by President Ronald Reagan to answer a question -- then returned dutifully to his place in the queue. Tradition has ruled at Galatoire's ever since Jean Galatoire came from the French Pyrenees in 1905 to found the restaurant.
"We've been pretty much the same ever since," says David Gooch, grandson of the nephew of the founder.
Formal diners love the jackets-after-5 p.m. rule, and the locals take it even further, arriving in the Southern summer uniform of seersucker suit, white shirt and bow tie. They love its history, remembering that Tennessee Williams set a scene here from Streetcar Named Desire, in which Stella brings Blanche to avoid Stanley's poker game.
It's a noisy place when the food crowd arrives in full cry -- a single, large room lined with noise-bouncing mirrors, wallpaper covered with green fleurs-de-lys and white wood trim. The cuisine is French, but a New Orleans version.
"We've always had some light dishes; grilled fish and the like," says Gooch. "But we still have the same Bearnaise sauce."
Appetizers include Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters en Brochette at $8, but also a spicy, very New Orleans-style Shrimp Remoulade at $8.50. The Cold Smoked Soft Shell Crab with Choron Sauce is an intensely flavorful, chewy portion of crab with a smoky Bearnaise sauce with a spicy infusion of tomato.
Entrees include the Pompano Meuniere Amandine at $21, Crawfish Etouffée at $17; the Filet de Boeuf is big and tender, with a Roasted Shallot Demi-Glace with Wilted Spinach. A specialty of the house is its Potato Soufflé, an unusual dish, hazardous to the cook, in which potatoes are sliced thin, dropped into 350-degree oil, then moved into another pot with 450-degree oil and shaken vigorously. The result: They puff up like giant, crisp snow pea pods, to be served with a spicy sauce.
The even more traditional dessert: Crepes Suzette, fork-tender pancakes topped with Cointreau and intensely tangy orange zest, at $5.
Galatoire's: 209 Bourbon St.; 504-525-2021.
Arnaud's, at the corner of Rue Bienville and Bourbon Street, is the very heart of the Vieux Carré. Founded in 1918 by Count Arnaud Cazenave, it is a labyrinth of dining areas and trysting places including the Jazz Room, where bass, clarinet and banjo players play New Orleans jazz; the main dining room with its Italian mosaic tile floors and sparkling leaded, cut-glass windows and crystal ceiling fans; the dark, quiet Richelieu Bar and a series of upstairs reception rooms giving out onto a wrought-iron-laced second-story balcony from which to watch the revelers below.
Arnaud's signature appetizer, Shrimp Arnaud, at $8.95, is spicy and hot, marinated in the restaurant's tangy Creole Remoulade Sauce. Other appetizers include Louisiana Alligator Sausage at $5.95 and Crabmeat Prentiss at $10.95. The entree portion of Crawfish O'Connor, at $20, is filled with tender crustaceans sautéed, flamed in brandy and served in a lobster sauce over jasmine rice. It is hugely rich and heavy -- quintessential New Orleans fare. Other entrees include Petit Filet Lafitte at $27.50, a beef filet stuffed with fried oysters and served with a Creole sauce.
The dessert selection of Bread Pudding, at $4.95, is heavy, chewy, caloric and delicious; the Bananas Foster, at $5.95, is rich enough to end the evening and send everyone home groaning.
Arnaud's: 813 Rue Bienville; 504-523-5433.
RED FISH GRILL
The Red Fish Grill's entry sign, a colorful, cartoon-like carving of a bulging-eyed fish, announces that this is a more casual, less formal New Orleans restaurant -- "Pressed Without the Starch" is how the Brennan family puts it.
Inside, the restaurant, opened in 1997, is funky-modern, with salmon and lime-green walls, metal-sculpture fish and palm trees, even neon fish, hanging from the ceiling.
Its friendliness surpasses even California-casual: "Hi! I'm Roland," a grinning youth proclaims as you enter. "I'll seat you. Rose will bring your drinks and Rachael will bring your food." Roland even pats your shoulder as he seats you, confirming you as a member of the family.
Under executive chef Laura Karwisch, the lunch appetizer portion of Barbecued Alligator Legs, Atchafalaya alligator legs grilled over hickory with a barbecue sauce based on tangy Abita Turbodog beer and served over a warm bacon-potato salad is something new: chewy alligator legs that look like beef ribs in a sweet, not hot barbecue sauce. The potato salad is even more interesting: crisp, chewy, piping hot chunks of potato in a rich, bacon-flecked sauce. Other appetizers include Shrimp Escabeche, Grilled Gulf Shrimp with Roasted Red Peppers and Cilantro in Spicy Chipotle and Orange Marmalade, at $8; Oysters Served Three Ways, Rockefeller style, baked with leeks and parmesan or flash fried and tossed in pepper sauce, at $6.
The restaurant's reputation is made on its lunchtime entree portion of Sweet Potato Catfish, at $12, a mammoth slab of tender, aromatic catfish covered with thin slices of sweet potato, served over sautéed spinach. Any hope of a calorie-conscious meal is dashed by its creamy, andouille sausage sauce.
On the dinner menu, Hickory Grilled Redfish with Louisiana Lump Crabmeat and Pecan Butter, is $24 as an a la carte entree. Softshell Crab with Crabcakes, Jicama Slaw and Roasted Jalapeño Butter is $32 as part of a complete dinner.
On the dessert menu, the Double Chocolate Bread Pudding is even more decadent, with semisweet chocolate pudding, a white and dark chocolate ganache and a chocolate almond bark so elaborate the diner must order at the beginning of the meal and expect at least 20 minutes for preparation; it's $7.
Red Fish Grill: 115 Bourbon St., 504-598-1200.
Dining at Brigsten's, on the far side of the Garden District from downtown, is like visiting a the home of an old-fashioned aunt. A wood-frame house built 150 years ago from river flatboats, its interior walls are leafy green, its rooms decorated with small marble fireplaces, antique mirrors and slow-turning ceiling fans. Owner Frank Brigtsen is the former night chef for the legendary Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's, here carrying on his Cajun style without quite the heat and heavy sauces.
The appetizer Gratin of Oysters with Italian Sausage, Spinach, Romano and Herbsaint Garlic Butter, at $8.75, is hot, crisp and buttery, with big, juicy broiled oysters under a creamy sauce, redolent of the anise-like liqueur Herbsaint that takes the place of the long-prohibited absinthe.
Other appetizers include Butternut Shrimp Bisque at $6.75, Pan-Fried Catfish with Stone Ground Jalapeño Cheese Grits at $7.50, Sautéed Softshell Crab with Spiced Pecans and Meuniere Sauce at $12.75.
The entree portion of Panéed (Cajun French for breaded) Rabbit with Sesame Crust, Spinach and Creole Mustard Sauce at $19 is generous and flavorful, a bit chewy. Other entrees include Broiled Gulf Fish with Crabmeat Crust at $22, Roast Duck with Cornbread Dressing and Honey Pecan Gravy at $24.
Desserts include the mandatory Banana Bread Pudding at $4.75, Pecan Pie with Caramel Sauce at $5.75 and Peanut Butter Mousse at $5.
Brigsten's: 723 Dante St.; 504-861-7610.
Bayona is cheerful, noisy, casual, a lure for boisterous revelers from Bourbon Street two blocks away who arrive in everything from little black dresses to Hawaiian shirts and beads. Built into a 200-year-old Creole cottage, it's bright, with pumpkin walls, white wood trim and lots of French windows and doors, white pressed metal ceiling, white tablecloths and huge vases of live flowers.
French-trained chef Susan Spicer is one of New Orleans' rising stars, having mastered the delicate art of creating a cuisine that is not from New Orleans but respectful of it. Her appetizer portion of Sautéed Sweetbreads with Potatoes, Mushrooms and Sherry Mustard Butter, at $9, is a revelation: hot, crisp, creamy sweetbreads with big chunks of mushroom and crisp potatoes, tiny, tangy cubes of beet and a rich sauce.
Other appetizers include Crab Cakes with Saffron Tomato Sauce and Avocado, at $8.50, and Goat Cheese Crouton with Mushrooms in Madeira Cream at $7. Spicer's signature entree, Grilled Duck Breast with Pepper Jelly Glaze, at $20, is a triumph. Other entrees include Grilled Poussin (Baby Chicken) with Chanterelles, Spinach and Thyme Jus at $18.
An innovative dessert is Plum Crumble Tartelette with Candied Ginger Ice Cream at $6.
Bayona: 430 Dauphine; 504-525-4455.
The chi-chi Zoe Bistrot, in the W New Orleans hotel, which the guidebooks say is so hip it should be not here but in Manhattan, takes a stab at lighter fare on its lunch menu, with a Tuna Carpaccio Nicoise with big chunks of juicy seared tuna, potatoes, tomatoes, lemon zest, sweet and sour pickles and black olive oil; light but flavorful, at $14. But it also serves Steak Frites, an eight-ounce sirloin with french fries and a dollop of maitre d' butter.
Beluga Caviar is available at $84 an ounce; an $8 Green Apple Martini is citrus vodka with apple pucker and a chunk of the crisp, underripe Granny Smith apples that are used throughout the hotel as decoration.
Desserts include French Poodle Meringue, strawberry meringue cookie with dark chocolate mousse at $6. The dinner menu features Escargot at $10, Lobster Pie at $28, Seared Gulf Fish at $17.
Zoe Bistrot, in the W New Orleans Hotel; 333 Poydras St., 504-525-9444.