My father, Andy Benson,
a real New Orleans character in a city jammed with them, was a humble man, but he liked to acknowledge big time family achievements at the city’s old-line eateries.
I remember digging into a slab of Mile High Ice Cream Pie at the long-gone Caribbean Room when my brother graduated from Tulane Medical School when I was 7. My sister Beth’s 1978 wedding reception at Elmwood Plantation impressed me with memories gigantic butterflied fried shrimp that remain my standard bearers to this day. Daddy surely breathed a sigh of relief when his own father, “Paw-Paw Benson,” was given the “all clear” as he recovered from a bypass surgery of the sort we would now consider primitive. We celebrated with a trip to the now-defunct Versailles and platters of Chateaubriand.
Without a doubt the memories I hold most dear are of Delmonico on St. Charles Avenue where the proprietress sisters, Miss Angie (Brown) and Miss Rose (Dietrich) fussed over my father and never failed to regale with stories of his gallantry and the time he literally bailed the restaurant out and salvaged its electrical system in the throes of the May 3 flood of 1978. Delmonico was the scene of my sister’s college graduation dinner and my own 13th birthday celebration. It is where I first learned a new method of torturing my mother, one of those squeamish ladies who turned her nose up at mold, fungus and slime masquerading as “food.” She left oysters behind in their shells after eating the Rockefeller or Bienville sauces from around them; daintily scraped crabmeat dressing from within mushroom caps, which she left behind; and shunned with a shudder the restaurant’s divine Roquefort dressing. My father’s admonishment that I at least try everything allowed me to irk my prim, unadventurous mother; seeing the horror on her face as her 6-year-old slurped raw oysters from the shell gave me a little thrill. So, yes, Delmonico is a place I hold dear.
My family recently welcomed a newcomer. John Luke Sidney Charbonnet would have been my father’s third great-grandchild. Daddy just loved babies, and the arrival of his first great-grandson would have set my father positively aflutter hunting and pecking over his keyboard and burning up the telephone lines to share the news with extended family in Sweden.
A celebratory visit to Delmonico seemed in order.
It was nearly 20 years ago that chef Emeril Lagasse purchased the restaurant from Angie and Rose and reverently evolved it into Emeril’s Delmonico, the stylish contemporary Creole restaurant it is today. Though the furnishings are far more elegant than they once were, the floor plan remains unchanged, so it was easy for me to commune with all of my ghosts.
Chef de Cuisine Anthony Scanio recently unveiled a new menu, but a few old fashioned throwbacks remain, including Crabmeat Remick and baked Oysters Bienville. Both my husband and our patient and gallant waiter, Malcolm, deserve medals for enduring me as I labored to decide between Fried Oyster Bordelaise; Crisp Duck Leg Confit with orange scented waffles, tasso and cane jus; Panéed Swordfish with pistachio risotto and satsuma vinaigrette; and a Dry Aged Beef Chorizo Poor Boy.
Choosing dessert was easier. The Coconut-Chocolate Cream Pie topped with toasted coconut and chocolate sauce was, for me at least, evocative of the forbearer’s Delmonico Fluff – ice cream with toasted almonds, whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
As Andrew and I raised our glasses to toast the arrival of John Luke and the memory of my father, a text message arrived on my phone. It was picture of my nephew, Neil (my father’s eldest grandchild) with Lisa, his love of several years. They were holding a sign: “We’ve eloped y’all!”
It turned out to be yet another unforgettable evening with my family at Delmonico.
I recently encountered Miso Gumbo on the menu at Origami. Garnished with a large panko-battered friend shrimp, the brown stew was not at all miso soup and not so much a gumbo, but it was unique enough to be amusing and hearty enough to be soothing and welcome on a cold night.