French cuisine is ingrained in modern restaurant cooking. There are French techniques in just about every restaurant worth its salt, and French recipes are standards. Even the title “chef” is of French origin. But the kind of French cooking that was once the hallmark of fine-dining restaurants is no longer in fashion.
In New Orleans, we’ve held on to some of the customs. Old-line Creole restaurants such as Antoine’s, Arnaud’s or Galatoire’s maintain the tradition of professional service, and if the food isn’t taken directly from Escoffier’s playbook, it’s still recognizably French in origin. True haute cuisine may be impossible to find in New Orleans, but bistro cooking –– the cooking of Parisian neighborhood restaurants –– is not.
Café Degas, located at 3127 Esplanade Ave., is the best example of a typical bistro in town. It’s a fairly casual restaurant, but the food is serious –– and seriously French.
The restaurant, which opened in 1980, has a menu that’s a survey of bistro classics, from a stellar onion soup to an equally well-executed dish of calf’s liver with onions and bacon. Escargot are on the menu, as are mussels cooked with fennel and served with excellent pommes frites. When it’s available, the boudin noir with choucroute garnie is killer. The dark-red sausage is imported from France, and it’s a spicy, earthy masterpiece. The hanger steak is another winner, and it’s very hard to pass on the Dijon-crusted rack of lamb.
If you are dining with a few others, it’s a good idea to get the pâté selection or the cheese plate to start things off. Either is an ideal way to delay making a decision on the rest of your meal, along with a glass or two of wine from the moderately priced list.
Chef Ryan Hughes has manned the galley-like kitchen at Café Degas since 2004, and he gets a chance to stretch his creative wings with specials. While the regular menu is pure bistro, the specials are more eclectic. A confit of chicken sounds pretty French, but the meat was flavored with lemon grass and stuffed into ravioli with a sauce of coconut milk.
Braised rabbit thigh with rosemary grits, yellow squash and a chasseur sauce is an example of how Hughes marries French technique to local ingredients. His redfish coubillon featured the fish atop eggplant terrine in a stew-like sauce and garnished with preserved Meyer lemons and basil.
Desserts are listed on a whiteboard that hangs in the center of the dining room and is taken down to present to diners who don’t have a view from their tables. A very good crème brûlée is almost always present, and at a recent lunch, I had an airy example of “floating islands” in which the disks of meringue topped with almonds and pastry cream sat atop a sauce of huckleberries.
The dining room at Café Degas is basically a covered deck, and when the weather is nice, it’s one of the most pleasant places to eat in New Orleans. When the climate doesn’t cooperate, the restaurant drops thick plastic shades on the windows. When it’s too hot, air conditioning is available, and heaters do the trick during cold snaps. There is a tree growing through the middle of the restaurant that I always found fascinating. Then again I’m also fascinated by very shiny things. It is a weakness.
Café Degas is open for lunch Wednesday to Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for brunch on Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for dinner Wednesday to Saturday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dinner on Sunday runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. It is not a large restaurant, so reservations are a good idea. You can contact them at 945-5635.