President Obama at Dooky Chase in New Orleans.
By Gerrie E. Summers
It’s odd when you come back from a trip and you’re exhausted from…wait for it…eating. I’m sure the accompanying spirits didn’t help, but New Orleans is one (I have to make up a word to accurately describe it) eatin’-est city.
It’s been five years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged this world-famous party town. There are still homes boarded up in the Ninth Ward, the first and hardest hit by flooding and many fields grow where homes filled with memories once stood. Although the French Quarter is nearly back to its rip roarin’ highly spirited (read: inebriated) self, there is a subtle difference. It’s almost like being struck by cancer. You’re so shocked that it could happen to you—you, a beloved soul. And even if the surgery and the chemotherapy have wiped out the cancer, the effects remain in the eyes, the mind, the heart and the soul.
But there’s good news for visitors: the appetite is back and the kitchens are open. The Greater New Orleans chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association even has a culinary movement called We Live to Eat, to support local restaurants. You can’t quite hit all the great places in just three days, although I did try my best. And one thing occurred to me—if a restaurant in New Orleans hasn’t been family-owned for generations or at least has a colorful history, it’s suspect.
More Than a Notion
Court of Two Sisters (613 Royal Street, 504-522-7261 ) wasn’t on my itinerary, but since I had a few hours before I would meet up with the rest of my group, I took a walk over to Royal Street for the live jazz brunch buffet.
The restaurant is named for two Creole sisters Emma and Bertha Camors and the notions shop they owned on the site of what was known as Governor’s Row (the 600 block of Rue Royale), which catered to NOLA’s aristocratic women. Court of Two Sisters is actually owned and operated by two brothers Joseph Fein, III and Jerome Fein. Ownership of the property changed several times until it landed in the hands of Joe Fein, Jr. who opened a restaurant, retaining the old world courtyard with its original gaslights and flowing fountains.
The buffet makes it hard to decide what to eat—zesty Cajun pasta, sweet potato with andouille sausage, shrimp in spicy etouffee, crawfish Louise, shrimp and crawfish with remoulade sauce, Creole jambalaya, southern BBQ pork ribs, veal grillades and gravy (a local favorite), corn grits, homemade French vanilla ice cream with a choice of praline or chocolate sauce and the restaurant’s famous bread pudding with whiskey sauce. You can do as I did, sample almost everything, and nearly pass out on Canal Street.
Classic Creole Cuisine
Arnaud’s (813 Bienville Street, 504-523-0611 ). A colorful French wine salesman named Arnaud Cazenave, opened a restaurant in 1918, serving classic Creole cuisine. In 1978, Archie and Jane Casbarian purchased and restored the property. Arnaud’s is now operated by Jane and fourth generation family members Katy and Archie Casbarian and continues to carry on the traditions of Arnaud Cazenave.
The Gumbo Trio plays Dixieland jazz nightly in the Jazz Bistro, which is where I had my first, and probably last taste of Sazerac, the famous New Orleans drink; a rye whiskey concoction touted as the first ever mixed drink. More to my liking was French 75, (Courvoisier VS, sugar, lemon and Cordon Rouge). Try the signature dish, Shrimp Arnaud, (shrimp marinated in the Arnaud’s famous Creole remoulade sauce) as an appetizer, and for an entrée, try Pontchartrain, sautéed fillet topped with fresh Louisiana crabmeat. After dessert, visit the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum on property, which is named for Arnaud’s daughter, who reportedly reigned as queen over 22 Mardi Gras balls from 1937-1968. The collection includes more than two dozen Mardi costumes, carnival masks and vintage photos.
Breakfast At Brennan’s
Brennan’s (417 Royal Street, 504-525-9713 ) This is the place to go for breakfast. The typical New Orleans breakfast starts with an eye opener (liquor) like Brandy Milk Punch or Creole Bloody Mary. I tried Mr. Funk of New Orleans, which is named for the Cellar Master (Champagne, cranberry juice and peach schnapps). Appetizers include such delights as New Orleans turtle soup, Maude’s Seafood okra gumbo and Southern baked apple with double cream. For the entrée I narrowed it down to Eggs Hussarde (a Brennan’s original)—poached eggs atop Holland rusks, Canadian bacon and Marchand de vin sauce and topped with Hollandaise sauce or Eggs Portuguese—flaky pastry shells with freshly chopped tomatoes sautéed in butter with parsley and shallots, topped with poached eggs and covered with Hollandaise sauce. I chose the latter. It’s also traditional to have wine with breakfast. I don’t know how one stays awake after a breakfast like this, but that wasn’t even the grand finale in which the Bananas Foster, a Brennan’s creation was prepared with flourish right before our eyes–bananas sautéed in butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and banana liqueur, flamed in rum and served over vanilla ice cream. I could feel my arteries clogging, but you only live once, right?
At Olivier’s (204 Decatur Street, 504-525-7734 ) the “G” stands for Gumbo. This family-run restaurant serves up authentic Creole dishes handed down through five generations. Now headed by Chef Armand Olivier Jr., the menu is divided according to which member inspired each dish—Grandma Gaudet, Chef Armand’s great great grandmother, who passed on her recipes to daughter-in-law, Mama Jeanne (Gaudet) Doublet, and the tradition continued as recipes continued to be passed down to Mama Jeanne’s daughter-in-law, Audrey (La France) Gaudet and her daughter, Cheryl (Gaudet) Olivier, Chef Armand’s mother. You definitely want to try the gumbo here and add fodder to a long-time Olivier discussion—who makes the best gumbo? There are three classic ways of making Louisiana gumbo –with a roux, with file (ground sassafras) or with okra. Olivier’s makes all three and family members are constantly arguing over the merits of Armand’s Gumbo with roux, Papa Armand’s File gumbo and Mama Cheryl’s Okra Gumbo. Armand Olivier Sr.’s recipe won the gumbo taste-off on the Food Network, but the debate is far from over. Patrons can judge for themselves by trying the Gumbo Sampler. Also try the Taster’s Platter of battered and fried Louisiana seafood (fish, shrimp, oysters, crab and salmon cake and Creole gumbo.)
Where Soul Food Is A Work of Art
As you enter Dooky Chase (2301 Orleans Avenue, 504-821-0600) you’ll probably notice a photo of President Barack Obama (as a presidential candidate) seated at a table, with a wide, satisfied grin. You know you’re in for a treat. Feisty chef Leah Chase, known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, got after him for putting hot sauce in her gumbo. He said, “But I always eat it like that!” Mrs. Chase recalls with a smile.
Dooky Chase began as a small shop owned by Leah’s in-laws, where Dooky Sr. sold lottery tickets and his wife sold homemade po’boy sandwiches. Leah and husband musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. eventually took over the business, which by then had become a sit-down restaurant. Leah took over the kitchen, adding her family’s Creole recipes to the soul food menu. The popular local spot became a gathering place during the Civil Rights Movement. Leah has fed the likes of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall and Ray Charles (who wrote “Early in the Morning” about it).
The restaurant suffered two feet of flooding and mold due to Hurricane Katrina and the Chases lived in a FEMA trailer outside the restaurant for over a year. It reopened (mostly for takeout and special events) in 2007 thanks to a substantial donation by Starbucks and high profile fundraisers. They were also able to save the original African American art that grace the warm red walls of the main dining room.
Now diners can order from the a la carte menu or choose the buffet where you will find soul food and Creole dishes from red beans and rice, with andouille sausage, okra gumbo, yellow squash with shrimp, fried catfish fillets to peach cobbler. Just don’t arrive late. You think a hurricane does damage? Leah’s customers can wipe out a buffet.
Sunday Brunch at House of Blues
House of Blues (225 Decatur Street, 504-310-4999 ) By Sunday morning, just a few hours before leaving for the airport, I didn’t think my body could take another morsel, but I tried my best at the Gospel Jazz Brunch at the House of Blues. The buffet is typical; with breakfast fare like cheddar grits, pancakes, and omelets, as well cheese and fruit platters, meats like baked chicken with Jim Bean BBQ sauce, chicken jambalaya, Champagne mimosas, and white chocolate bread pudding with Bourbon sauce. After a trip to Brennan’s or Arnaud’s, a foodie might not be impressed. House of Blues is definitely a tourist spot, but it’s worth a visit for the gospel/jazz music (though the sound level was too high) and to check out the illustrated walls and gaudy decor.
New York-based writer Gerrie Summers has been writing professionally for over 31 years in the areas of entertainment, beauty, lifestyle, travel and wellness. She has been the Travel Adventures columnist for
Today’s Black Woman and now writes the blogs Summers Retreat and The Tranquil Traveler.