New Orleans is the home of a coven of grande old Creole restaurants - instiutions that pioneered the rich and soulful and intrinsically good cuisine that defines New Orleans. They were created a very long time ago and have ridden out hurricanes, the Great Depression, World War II, and a staggering decline in the taste and sensibilities of the American people, and I hope to God they last a long time more.
Antoines is a charter member of this group, a 150 year old Dining Room, where one Antoine Alciatore, smacked around a bit by New York city, decided to take his culinary expertise on the road to New Orleans. The restaurant became a hit, and it's been serving up butter-heavy Creole food to many a happy customer ever since. Oysters Rockefeller - those delicious spinachy suckers that have circulated across the country - originated in Antoine's kitchen, along with pommes de terre souffles, a New Orleans centric type of air-filled fried potato. Antoines also happens to be a hangout for four Mardi Gras carnival krewes - Rex, Proteous, Hermes, and the 12th Night Revelers, who traditionally come here to get properly fed and schnockered in the process. (They are not shy about booze in these parts: Antoine's was dishing out the good stuff in coffee cups round' the back during Prohibition.)
With so much history and tradition behind it, it's kind of hard to review a place like this. Complicating and enhancing matters, my dad is friends with Johnny Mencina, a long-time server here who is exceedingly fine at his job. He took care of us all night long, bringing that kind of refined-but-friendly service N'awlins can pull off like nowhere else. So how the hell can I be objective?
Well, I'll try.
The (back) dining room we sat at has a powerful patina of history, covered in gently moldering pictures and autographs of celebrities whose names I shall never get around to looking up. Truly old school restaurants have fallen by the wayside in this country, and it's a departure for this California transplant to see everyone scurrying about in white-tie. A pleasing one.
We began with those famous potato souffles - fried twice to create a curiously puffy texture, almost like an exceedingly expensive Muncho. These were tasty enough, although I wish they had been a bit hotter and more ethereal. Admittedly, I am not subject to the smoky charms of the potato as some among us are.
We are gumbo afficinados in this family, gumbo worshippers, so my father and I regarded our cups of gumbo with the usual suspicion. Not to be disappointed: Antoine's dirty-rich and file thick gumbo is as good as I've had beside my own grandmother's kitchen. This is the good junk you can stick a spoon up in, full of all sorts of tasty sea critters and sausage and Lord knows what else. (I dearly hope the foofoo contingent will not discover gumbo and turn it into a contempo foam ridden abomination before God, oh please please.)
And next came another life-long love of mine: baked oysters. Johnny advised us to go with a sampler, and so we did. Counterclockwise:
Huitres Thermidor , Fresh Louisiana oysters baked on the half shell with a bacon and tomato sauce. These were tangy and delicious, as the combination of oyster, tomato and bacon is always superb and worthy of study by scientific outlets possibly to cure longstanding depression or malaise.
Huitres Bienville, Oyster baked on the half shell with a white wine sauce seasoned with onions, pimento, and fresh peppers. These were of course tasty, with that lovely butter flavor in the back, but not quite as good as the other two.
Huitres en coquille a la Rockefeller (notre creation), Oysters baked on the half shell with the original Rockefeller sauce created by Antoine's in 1889.
The recipe for these iconic bivalves is guarded with (someone's) life, but I know it involves spinach, bread crumbs, a touch of anise and of course a lot of butter. I like these very much.
We moved on (as we must). I am a soft-shell crab freak - something about being able to completely consume these briny little gifts from Jesus Christ and Mary themselves fascinates me. Therefore, I selected the Crabes mous amandine, soft shell crabs fried in a light batter with hot melted butter and toasted sliced almonds. My dad, meanwhile, swears by the Filet de truite Pontchartrain, grilled trout with lump crabmeat sautéed in butter. Johnny was kind enough to let us do a little sampler platter as you may view above. The crab was truly lovely, fried ethereally and topped with a butter, almondy sauce that would be considered grounds for lawsuit in my health-obsessed home of California. The trout was lovely as well: fresh trout, panfried to a careful crisp, served with sweet and plentiful crabmeat chunks. This is why people have been drooling over NOLA seafood for a long time, folks. (And you want us all to disappear into the waters, as if you think you'd ever be able to eat this stuff again!)
We also shared a side of Epinards sauce crème or spinach in a light cream sauce, which was rich and delish as you may imagine. I know you may be startled, but there was butter in it.
My dad is passionate about bread pudding and is rarely in a position where he may eat it: therefore, we ordered the Le pudding de pain de noix de pecan, a cinnamon and raisin pudding topped with a rum sauce. This is another classic New Orleans dessert, possibly because it contains both butter and booze, the two substances this city runs on. It was of course delicious.
I'll admit it: Antoine's doesn't turn out the kind of firecracker smack yo' mama cuisine that a place like August does. The food is tasty, sophisticated, and well-presented, but it is not startling or surprising. But I believe it does not need to be. Antoine's is rooted in the past, continuing on a course set in 1840 - and a damn fine thing it is doing too, preserving the food techniques and the delicious dishes my ancestors were dining on, back in the day. We need restaurants like Antoines, and we need to hold onto them, visit them: they are preserving a part of our heritage that could very well be buried under Burger King emporiums and deconstructed molecular cuisine, a form of eating that defined sophistication in the good old days and still holds claim to it in the present. If you're in New Orleans, do yourself a favor and make it out to Antoine's - this is a great way to taste and experience what this beautiful, nasty, melee of a city is all about.
(And dress nice, you coastal bums!)