Food: Blasts From the Past

A friend recently gave me the real recipe for oysters and artichokes from Corinne Dunbar’s restaurant. Dunbar is a relative of the owner, the late James J. Plauche Jr., who wrote, “This is the true and authentic recipe. With love, Jimmie.”

The “authentic” versions of restaurant recipes are sometimes controversial, but Plauche left no doubt about this one. As owner of the legendary St. Charles Avenue establishment from 1956 to ’88, he reigned over one of the most popular restaurants ever to put a stamp on the New Orleans culinary scene. He kept the recipe secret for many years but eventually wanted his siblings to have the real deal. One of the most noticeable differences between his recipe and other popular interpretations is the absence of mushrooms.

This dish begins with fresh artichoke hearts combined with a buttery, garlicky sauce. Oysters are added and served in ramekins surrounded by the artichoke leaves. In the 1967 publication of The New Orleans Restaurant Cookbook by Deirdre Stanforth, many of Dunbar’s recipes were published – but not Huitres Dunbar. “Mr. Plauche absolutely and adamantly refuses to divulge the secret – and this is completely in character with Creole custom,” wrote Stanforth.

Not three months after my good fortune, another friend stopped me at a meeting and gave me a copy of another culinary legend, the almond torte from Masson’s Beach House, which I had published in The Times-Picayune’s food section years ago. It was the most delicious dessert that I had ever eaten. I discovered it when I moved here in the mid-1960s but, alas, the dish was history after the restaurant closed in the ’70s.

What amazes me is the rich era of fine dining that thrived in New Orleans when much of America caved to the doldrums of potato hash and boiled meat, and was actually ecstatic over sliced bread and canned vegetables.

In New Orleans, in the middle of the Great Depression, locals and tourists from all over the world were dining in French style at the lovely home of Corinne Dunbar on St. Charles Avenue. On the menu were bouillabaisse, grillades, daube Creole and stuffed mirlitons, all served amid antique furnishings on fine china. Dunbar, an Uptown widow and socialite, entertained home-style, and in her glory days reservations were priceless. For almost 20 years she hosted movie stars, international travelers and locals, and when she died, her daughter took over briefly before selling the restaurant to Plauche, a distant relative.

According to Stanforth, customers were sometimes found in the back alleyway after dinner trying to bribe the cooks for secret recipes. Dunbar’s lived on until 1987 but lost some popularity when upstart restaurant critics (a new profession at this time) slammed it as pretentious and lacking in top-quality food service.

Meanwhile, the family of French-trained chefs that began serving the city from its lake area perch in the mid 1900s reached its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s with dishes like vichyssoise, frog legs belle meunière and seafood crêpés.

But their most-loved recipes seemed to be two desserts: almond torte and sabayon.

Memories linger of these and other wonderful lost restaurants of New Orleans. If you want a taste of some of their best dishes, you just may have to make them yourself.

Corrine Dunbar’s Oysters and Artichokes
1    pint medium oysters,
    about 30, with their water
6     artichokes
1/2     pound butter (2 sticks)
1     medium onion, minced
1     clove garlic, minced
1/3     cup flour
1/4     teaspoon thyme
1     bay leaf
1     Tablespoon parsley, chopped
1/2    teaspoon salt
1    lemon, sliced thinly
    Pimento, chopped

Rinse oysters, reserving water. Sprinkle artichokes with salt and cook for about 45 minutes in a pot of shallow water, covered.

Melt butter in skillet and simmer onion for 10 minutes. Add garlic and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in flour slowly and simmer for 5 minutes. Add oysters and their water, thyme, bay leaf, parsley and salt. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Remove leaves from artichokes. Remove thistle and discard. Chop hearts into pieces and place them in 6 ramekins. Cover artichoke hearts with oyster mixture. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes until bubbly. Remove and brush top with melted butter.

Place ramekins on plates surrounded by artichoke leaves. Garnish with melted butter, breadcrumbs, a lemon round, chopped parsley and pimento pieces.

Serves 6 in 4-ounce ramekins.

Masson’s Almond Torte
1    pound powdered sugar
1    pound butter
4    eggs, separated
2    almond macaroons
2    coconut macaroons
1/3    cup almonds, blanched
    and slivered
1/2    Tablespoon vanilla extract
    Whipped cream

Bring all ingredients, except whipped cream, to room temperature. In a large bowl, cream together sugar and butter.

Add egg yokes, one at a time, until smooth. Crush or tear the macaroons into small bits; then add to the mixture along with the almonds and vanilla. Stir well. Whip egg whites and fold into mixture. Roll into 2-to3-inch-diameter logs and freeze.

To serve, cut logs into medallions about 1/2-inch thick and place several on each plate, topped with whipped cream.

Serves 6 to 8.

Words of Mouth
“New Orleans is the most food-conscious community in America; in fact, it may well be the only city outside of France where eating is a major love affair of the population.”

– Deirdre Stanforth, author, The New Orleans Restaurant Cookbook

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