For our 50th anniversary issue I decided to focus on a fine dining triptych with deep local roots. Even with my main criteria being a history of more than 50 years, the cup still runneth over given our local bounty of historic restaurants. So I winnowed it down to hit three points: resurrected, renewed and revered. So here’s to old memories and the anticipation of making new ones in the 50 years ahead.
Resurrected: Caribbean Room
The original Caribbean Room in The Pontchartrain Hotel dates to 1948, though it closed, seemingly for good, in ’94. It took a group of outside investors paired with a certain local partner, Cooper Manning, to bring it back. The result is both transformative and familiar, and strikes a particularly reverent local chord for those that remember celebrating special occasions there.
The décor, in particular the parlor, is Uptown Dowager Chic, cheekily juked with a statement portrait by artist Ashley Longshore of Lil’ Wayne digging into a slice of Mile High Pie.
Jackets are required, but if a gentleman forgets, they have loaners by southern tastemaker Billy Reid. The dining rooms themselves – a Shangri-La of floral prints, original murals and smoked mirrors – tread such a fine line between retro and original that one awkwardly placed fern might cause the whole effect to collapse. This is line a that John Besh, whose company overseas food service operations at the hotel, must carefully tread.
And it’s executive chef Chris Lusk who makes it work. With a pedigree that includes Restaurant R’evolution, another place that mined the past to cook for the present, he’s a great fit.
“Part of the research was going back through the old menus,” Lusk says. “Dishes were just very rooted in New Orleans and used lots of French technique.” Some dishes were resurrected, like the Grouper Pontchartrain, a thick portion of flaky, slightly sweet Gulf fish topped with a sautéed medley of lump crabmeat and wild mushrooms plated atop hollandaise sauce. Another classic, Crab Remick, is back as well. Lusk’s version incorporates bacon fat aioli and egg whites into the mix, which helps to both deepen the flavor and lighten the texture after it emerges hot from the broiler. Both dishes are recommended.
Oddly enough for a fine dining restaurant, it’s a dessert – the Mile High Pie – whose return had been most eagerly anticipated. The updated version, a neatly layered, towering wedge finished tableside with chocolate sauce, is composed of higher-quality ice cream than before. Like a Billy Reid jacket, the classic is back with a little something contemporary to say.
Broussard’s opened in 1920 and is one of the Grande Dames of Creole New Orleans fine dining establishments, but until recently it was showing its wear and tear. When Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts took it over in 2013, they embarked on a multi-million-dollar renovation. The result is an elegant restaurant sumptuously upholstered and decorated with all manner of Napoleonic homages.
Creole Concepts also brought on a new chef, Neal Swidler, to modernize the menu. As a former executive chef in Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant group, Swidler’s management skills, as well as his chops in the kitchen, made him a good fit. “When I got here everything was in a French and Creole framework, but I felt like it needed a little more creativity to make it come alive,” Swidler recalls. He decided upon Caribbean influences to reinvigorate many of the dishes, while leaving some legacy items in place.
For a Caribbean spin, consider the Broiled Drum Rosalie. The filet is crusted in rosemary and mustard and hit with a spiced apple glaze. “I use allspice and ginger for that – Caribbean influence without the heat,” Swidler says. Lemon beurre blanc and sautéed green beans nudge it back toward the traditional.
Southern influences appear as well, particularly on their popular Jazz Brunch menu. Here you can try fried chicken and waffles served up with whipped sage butter and candied pecans, or a twist on barbecue shrimp that uses a panko-crusted Anson Mills grit cake in lieu of French bread for the starch.
Swidler is also trying to shift the perception of Broussard’s as a special occasion place to a destination people can afford to visit more regularly with a rotating prix fixe menu at a lower price point. To get a three-course meal at Broussard’s, sometimes for under $20, is an amazing deal.
If any one restaurant crystallizes the classic Creole Grande Dame dining experience, it’s Arnaud’s. And with the clock ticking down to its centennial in 2018, it’s still going strong under the stewardship of Archie and Katy Casbarian, the children of the late Archie Sr., who was responsible for restoring the restaurant to its present glory following his acquisition of it in the late 1970s.
“Both my brother and I understand keenly the roots of the restaurant,” proprietor Katy Casbarian says. “And we understand that the success of the last 100 years has been predicated upon staying true to those roots.” It can be a tight rope to walk. While you don’t want to change much, you still have to stay on top of the experience. “While people might want to come and eat in a 100-year-old restaurant, they don’t want to eat in a dining room that hasn’t been touched in 100 years,” she points out.
For the quintessential Arnaud’s experience, start with a French 75 cocktail paired with an order of airy soufflé potatoes. Next go with the Shrimp Arnaud’s, whose mustard-based remoulade sauce creates a deeper, more complex flavor. Turtle soup with a splash of aged sherry follows, and then Trout Meuniere for the main course (the Creole version here uses veal stock in the sauce, rather than the more common brown butter preparation). Strawberries Arnaud, spooned over with French vanilla ice cream, is one dessert component. The other is café brûlot, with its dramatic flamed tableside preparation making for the perfect finale.
The Caribbean Room
2013 St. Charles Ave.
819 Conti St.
Dinner nightly, lunch Fridays, brunch Sundays
813 Bienville St.
Dinner nightly, brunch Sundays