Most Americans celebrate only one day in July. On the fourth, they open a can of cheap beer to toast the defeat of King George.
In New Orleans, our allegiances aren’t so narrow. Few houses fly Old Glory, but the city’s flag can be found on nearly every block. The rest of the country thanks their lucky stars and stripes that kings no longer rule the country. In New Orleans, we wear fleur-de-lis, the emblem of the French monarchy, and during Mardi Gras, bow to locally installed royalty.
Most cities only think about red, white and blue in July, but in New Orleans we also recognize Bastille Day and the bleu, blanc et rouge. In our Gallic-friendly and food-obsessed city however, it can be hard to find a restaurant with a French menu that isn’t a little Creole.
Dinner at La Provence in Lacombe feels like an evening excursion to the south of France. The Northshore’s rows of Best Buys and Applebee’s – the coast-to-coast landscape of America – disappear, and I pass alongside Fontainebleau State Park. As I turn on the hi-beams and settle in for a long drive, a restaurant appears that could have been plucked from the French countryside.
The atmosphere is Old World. Waiters wear rumpled tuxedo shirts and wheel carts of covered plates to each table. The style of service must have seemed proper when La Provence opened in 1972, but with today’s more relaxed manners, it’s quaint.
A little pot of mousse pâté arrived as I read the menu. Although no dish at La Provence may leave a lingering impression, everything is well executed. It’s hard to make a bad decision.
A first course tarte a l’oignon was like a custardy quiche topped with sweet onions. The next course was a simple green salad in a basic vinaigrette, a dressing that ought to be easy but always tastes better when prepared by the French. For a main course, I had drum grilled “a la plancha,” served with nothing more than olive oil and herbs. Desserts were understated endings to a meal, a crème brûlée or a wedge of chocolate tort, rather than a rich finale of cream, sugar or chocolate.
The Michelin Guide, the famous French guidebook, originally ranked restaurants on whether they merited a detour from the highway. La Provence is certainly worth driving a few miles. I would return not because I craved a certain dish or sought culinary creativity; instead, I would go to La Provence for a meal where every element has been considered and is presented at a careful pace.
At La Crêpe Nanou, the red glow from the art nouveau façade fills that corner of Robert off Prytania with a Parisian sophistication. It seems more Right Bank than East Bank.
The food at La Crêpe Nanou can be uneven, but it’s consistently so. The savory crêpes, for example, have assimilated too well and adopted the U.S. preference for “super sizing.” On the crêpe oignon fromage, I had to search for the actual crêpe under the mound of cheese and watery onions. Some judge a kitchen by how well it roasts a chicken. La Crêpe Nanou’s menu promises half of a roasted chicken, but the waiter delivered a plate of chicken pieces dominated by a dry, bone-in breast.
The classic mussels in white wine cream sauce are a better measure of the restaurant. It’s worth ordering an extra basket of bread to mop up every drop of the broth. The salade niçoise is excellent. The dependable steak, a filet with a choice of five sauces, is served with crisp Belgian-style fries.
The dessert crêpes are as oversized as the savory ones. For some reason, though, I have fewer objections to a softball-sized scoop of ice cream or extra squirts of chocolate sauce.
Despite its flaws, I would never turn down an invitation to eat at La Crêpe Nanou. If I order the dishes I know, I always leave satisfied.
Perhaps the best French food in the area is found in an unlikely location: a dreary strip mall off Williams Boulevard in Kenner. Step inside Château du Lac, and the atmosphere changes. Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald croon on the stereo. The walls are painted in Provençal blues and yellows. The tables, set with white tablecloths, are occupied by sophisticated couples who banter with their neighbors. Except for the enormous Asian Super Buffet sign peeking through one window, it’s easy to forget what’s outside when eating at Château du Lac.
The secret of French cuisine, chef Jacques Saleun says jokingly, is lots of cream and butter. He purchased the restaurant in January 2005 and replaced the salads and sandwiches with an ambitious French menu where nearly every dish includes cream or butter. Saleun, however, knows how to control the richness of his food so that the other ingredients shine through.
In a cream of broccoli soup, a little cream and butter gave the soup body, while the expert addition of salt brought out the flavor of the vegetable. It was the essence of broccoli, but more vivid than the vegetable would ever taste on its own. The escargots, another appetizer, floated in butter topped with julienned leeks. A dose of Sancerre wine added enough acidic bite to balance the richness.
The coq au vin was spectacular. The meaty, older hen tasted like wild game. The sauce, rich without being heavy, complemented the bird instead of covering it up.
On Bastille Day, Saleun wakes up at two in the morning to watch the military parades in Paris. This year, he might help chef René Bajeux, of René Bistrot, with his annual Bastille Day celebration.
For years, Bajeux has gathered together local French chefs for a Bastille Day benefit. At press time, however, he still wasn’t sure of the details, or if it would even be held this year. Bajeux will reopen his great French restaurant in August with a new menu that explores the food of the French countryside. He completely renovated René Bistrot after Katrina, but coordinating a party with some French chefs has proved more difficult.
“If it were a bunch of Germans or Swiss,” Bajeux says, “it would take them one day to get it organized.”
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