Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Get Busy Living...

Last week, Ian McNulty, superstar author, rugby aficionado, and sole remaining friend of the wine guy known as Bloggle, wrote a terrific piece in The Gambit about how trends in the restaurant and food world were gaining a foothold in New Orleans cuisine. The article probes a serious question which I believe to be, "Is New Orleans cuisine amenable to change?"

My answer is yes. Painting in broad strokes here, but the concept of "Creole Cuisine" is rooted in the fundamental principle that people move here. They bring with them ideas of food and cooking. They look around New Orleans and say, "How can we do that here." That is the truest definition of Creole cooking.

I cook red beans pretty regularly, but on Sundays, not Mondays. Sundays are when I do wash as like normal Americans, I work on Monday. Because beans are better the next day, I cook them on Sunday and eat them on Monday. Tradition and practice must adapt occasionally or else we all end up looking like this:

Let's take this a step further shall we and put it into hypothetical practice. In general Antoine's created or refined the concept of the American restaurant. For years, Antoine's innovated, explored, and created. Rightly so, they were rewarded with throngs of business, private rooms, a wine cellar as deep as the Mariana Trench, and accolades from Presidents and Popes.

Then they stopped doing what made them famous. Antoine's settled into a parody of itself. A play in which patrons watched understudies perform the leading roles. (It was once told to me by a member of the family which owns Antoine's, "We dont have a chef. We have cooks.") In the meantime, Prudhomme, Chase, Emeril, Spicer, Brigtsen, and now, Link, Besh, and Garcia have passed up Antoine's in terms of the full dining experience. You want to take a client to dinner, you aren't going to Antoine's anymore.

Look, I love going to Antoine's once or twice a year, but how many times can we all pretend the fish isn't dry, or the steak flabby, or that she just isn't that great anymore. Antoine's has become an old beauty queen. One can still see she is gorgeous, but her makeup is smudged and her dress sticks to her slip.

So what to do? Well, the amazing Jimmy Corwell just parted ways with Le Foret. His cooking skill and talent is a very welcome addition to the New Orleans dining scene. He assembled a very sharp, trained team of cooks at Le Foret who eventually will open their own restaurants (assuming Eddie Sapir doesn't get in their way).

Hire Jimmy Corwell. Leave the current kitchen staff there; they can handle the traditional menu and those large banquets. Give Corwell and whatever crew he can find, one room and one menu. Let him create the next Oysters Rockefeller. Let guests once again feel like they are eating in the greatest restaurant in the world. A juxtaposition of the old and the new. You want Oysters Foch? You got it. A puree of butternut squash topped with a foie gras mousse and truffles? Of course. You have a waitstaff any 3 star Michelin restaurant would pay to have. You added a bar. Take it one step further.

You wo'nt lose your street cred, Antoine's. You will attract younger diners who - let's face it - you need to get a hold of right now before you are a distant memory. Imagine the press, the excitement, the waiting lists. Set the bar again, Antoines. Make your food matter as much as the rest of it. And keep a talented chef in New Orleans. This isn't about trends or traditions. It isn't personal; it is business.


The Artist formerly known as Bloggle said...

This may be the best post (despite the typo) you guys have ever made.

And not just because I'm mentioned in it.

Spot on!

Meghan said...

Great post! I really hope Jimmy doesn't leave town. He's an amazing talent!

The Coonhunter said...

Love the jab at Fast Eddie (and, by association, the anti-development crowd).

Megan said...

So true. I'd much rather have drinks at the Hermes bar and dinner somewhere else.

Patrick said...

Great post.

Pontchartrain Pete said...

I see your point, but I think Antoine's reputation would be better improved by first ensuring that what already is on the menu is prepared consistently and impeccably. (A little easing on the prices wouldn't hurt with the local crowd, either, but that may be asking too much.)

What defines Antoine's late 19th/early 20th century dishes as Creole classics isn't simply that they were innovative for their time, but that they made innovative use of local ingredients.

I pointed out in a comment to McNulty's piece that no one should discount what Leah Chase said: "When you're dining out, you go for different experiences. But if you're hungry, you better eat what you know. If you're from New Orleans and you get really hungry, you better have New Orleans food."

I guess the question is becoming, how flexible is the definition of New Orleans food?

I'll make the argument that it shouldn't flex beyond cuisine that centers on indigenous ingredients. While menus evolve to meet changing tastes, and butternut squash may have some adoring fans, people don't come to New Orleans in search of the best butternut squash in the world, whether topped with foie gras and truffles or not.

Ryan Waldron said...

Although I understand the basis of your opinion, I must respectfully disagree. In the post Katrina Antoine's, I've never been served a piece of dry fish, or any food less than extraordinary. Furthermore, Antoine's does now have a chef, Michael Regua, who doe create new dishes. Antoine's creates seasonal menus of items not on the regular menu (always for lunch, sometimes for dinner). Some of these dishes are amazing. The stuffed softshell and the shrimp regua are 2 that stand out in my mind as amazing. The fact that y'all didn't mention this suggest to me that maybe y'all haven't ordered off that menu. Have y'all even been in the past couple of years? If not, care to go? I'm usually up for a trip to Antoine's.

Ryan Waldron said...

eg. http://www.antoines.com/special_events.html#lunchspecial

Rene said...

Was in Antoine's a few months ago and will be back in two weeks. There were souffle potatoes that had forgotten to souffle.

Fact is Antoine's relies on a steady stream of regulars who go to Antoine's on certain days (around Christmas, birthday, etc...) because that is what they always do. Now, that is all well and fine, but people die off. And younger people, who will one day be older people, do not go to Antoine's on their own. Now, you may well be an exception and this is in no way a rule, but younger diners have moved on.

Chef Regua is a good chef and I am in no way saying he needs to leave. But Antoine's is a very big restaurant and to be able to cook food well for a thousand people, hell 100 people, is a challenge.

All I advocated for was giving Corwell one dining room, of the what 24. You want Antoine's you can go there and choose which food to eat. What does Antoine's have to lose?

Anonymous said...

antoines isn't that great. as noted, people go for the ritual, not the food. I've had crummy fish and fatty awful filet mignon. sure the soufflé potatoes are fun and the baked Alaska the bomb. but the rest is shockingly ho-hum.

I would never take a client there. instead we impress with the likes of Coquette or Domenica, where execution is still essential.