With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
After an already edifying day, we took lunch at Dooky Chase’s. It was at Dooky’s, my bride read, that Civil Rights leaders in the 60’s gathered and ate. President Obama has also been a guest. They are known for their lunchtime buffet so that’s what we had. We walked in and were greeted by the hostess. “So nice you chose to eat with us today.” We liked the place immediately.
Omar was our waiter. When we selected the buffet he said, “Okay, I’ll get you started with our homemade chicken soup.” Spicy soup with noodles and slow-cooked chicken parts softly hanging off the bone. Afterwards we make our way to the buffet, back dropped by exquisite stained glass pictures depicting Treme scenes: children sitting on a wall, playing hopscotch, the ice cream man preparing treats for the kids. “Tha’s the man makin’ Snowballs,” Omar said. “Yeah, back then he used to roll through the neighborhood. Hasn’t been around for years.”
Buffet consisted of chopped salad, pickled baby okra (looking like sweet gherkins), artichokes, red beans and rice (Popeye’s has got some good gooey red beans and rice but when you taste the real thing you can see how artificially dramatic Popeye’s actually is.), jambalaya, sausage, and finally, fried pork and chicken. One of the things we joked about (okay, I joked about it) before we left was getting real Popeye’s down in Louisiana. Here we were at Dooky’s getting the down-home authenticity of Louisiana cooking. The fried chicken was especially tender and flavorful. With each trip, either Omar or another waiter faithfully kept filling up our water glass. We were both uncommonly thirsty. (Though for the duration of our trip, endless supplies of water would be consumed. New Orleans is a thirsty town.)
“And of course, your buffet includes our classic peach cobbler,” Omar said, presenting the plate of soft gooey fruit just sliding off its crunchy crumble. My god. This was lunch.
Though my bride was full it was apparent to me I could stay here a few more hours and really do some damage. Omar offered to call us a cab (everywhere people were always ready to call us cabs) since no one walks in this area, unless your house is down the street. Outside it was hot. Hot, humid and sticky. Better day for a bike ride than walking. Lots of bicycles in Treme. There were even bike and Segway tours through the neighborhood.
We got back to the Quarter and headed down to French Market, just past Jackson Square. Reminiscent of the enormous open-air Amish markets of the Northeast. More live jazz everywhere. More people, too. This is the super-saturation area of tourist traps where every shop sells beads, Saints paraphernalia and variations of I’m-so-drunk-it’s-funny- t-shirts. Traffic is at a standstill while young couples, old couples and roving groups of young men and woman swarm the area. Hardly any children seen. In fact the youngest children seen are the enterprising black children on the sidewalks dancing and shining shoes.
I get a couple of “Hey man! I know where you got your shoes! Those are nice shoes!” (referring to my beat-up Timberlands) but we did our research and were told the compliment was a come-on in disguise to rope you into a shoe shine. Unsuspecting tourists engaged in conversation no doubt resulting in at least a few dollars.
That area was too many people for the merciless heat. We were glad to get back to our hotel, shower (we took several showers a day, a stark contrast to my several showers a week routine) and dress for dinner.
Antoine’s. Like Arnaud’s, when the reservation was made we were reminded jackets were required. I had no problem with that. In fact, I applauded it. Finely prepared food deserves such consideration. That and my bride likes it when I dress up.
Sadly, respect is slowly being eschewed for casualness. Restaurants and theaters are the last stand. I showed up in my dinner jacket. Two tables away a man gnawed at a steak clad in t-shirt and baseball cap. A BASEBALL CAP!
Sigh. Like The Alamo, so another bastion crumbles.
Antoine’s is another old establishment, serving up New Orleans’ finest cuisine for 175 years. When filmmakers scout eating locations in the Quarter, Antoine’s is the preferred choice. We were seated in the big room, at a large table; we could barely reach out our hands to touch. Our usual practice of offering bites was going to be a challenge.
The left side of the table was buffered by a pillar replete with a news clipping from Admiral Byrd and below it a special note he wrote to Antoine’s on classic stationary comparing the dining experience to Delmonico’s in New York or the Café Anglais in Paris. At the time, Antoine’s tagline was: Come in with the blues and leave with a rosy impression.
Our server was called Sterling as indicated on his name plate. He had to be in his late 70’s. Whenever he approached, his shoulders hunched lowering his body to our seated height. He scurried over to each side depending on who was speaking. Hearing appeared to be a problem.
“Ah yes. My wife will have the Oysters Rockefeller.”
“Good choice, sir.”
Sterling scurried over to my bride.
“And what would madam like?”
“Ah, no-“ I began.
Sterling scurried over to my side.
“My wife will have the Oysters Rockefeller and I- (pointing at myself) I will have the Creole Gumbo.”
He nodded and scurried away, still hunched over.
We ordered drinks from Akiya, much younger and spry. I had the Ramos Gin Fizz, said to be Huey Long’s favorite drink. My bride had the Pimm’s Cup (with a cucumber). The Fizz tasted like a weak gin egg cream. However, the Pimm’s was cold and refreshing with just the right amount of alcohol burn. I ordered one for myself.
Bread arrived; full, hot and soft. Though with bread plates this time. Antoine’s wasn’t that savage. Big bread plates. We went through two small loaves.
The gumbo was sensational. I am warming up to ordering soup for an appetizer, especially if my main course is meat. The Oysters Rockefeller (the reason she wanted to go to Antoine’s) were… meh. Later on, when reviewing what others may have thought of this brown curled blob on top of the huge oysters, she realized others felt the same way and in fact, Antoine’s responded, saying this dish is a “unique dish” prepared the same way since it was invented and is not for everyone.
For the main course we had to go through the same song and dance with Sterling. Every time each one of us would open their mouth he’d scurry over, hovering close to our body. My bride noticed he was always close by our table. Probably explained why he came by no less than ten times during the dinner.
She ordered soft shelled crabs and that too was underwhelming. The crab legs were tasty but just too much crab brains, she said. I got the 13 oz. veal chop. What a nice balance of tender, soft veal and veal fat. Perfectly complemented by separately ordered creamed spinach with chunks of romano cheese. Each bite melted in our mouth.
During our meal, something interesting happened. Our water glasses were refilled by Akiya several times except once when another waiter came over and refilled saying to us, “It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.” No less than two minutes later, Akiya replaced our full glasses of water. Fresh glasses, she said, filling the new glasses with ice water.
Throughout the evening the room was never more than 1/3 full. And the clock was ticking on closing time. Their dinner hours only lasted from 430pm to 9pm. The way it had always been.
Our verdict was that Antoine’s had name recognition and its presentation and service were traditional, but it was a bit too French. A little stuffy.
As we walked around the Quarter, a few pounds heavier and a couple hundred dollars lighter, my bride informed me she noticed Sterling’s hearing aid one of the last times he bent down next to her. Of course. (When we returned home, she researched the original feature-article on Antoine’s in her Saveur magazine. There, she saw a photograph of a waiter’s dress uniform with the name plate: Sterling. It hadn’t registered to her at the time. The blurb further stated that the waiter, Sterling, had been at Antoine’s for 45 years. Wow. He had been working there before we were born. Well. Good for him, I say.)
Outside the street party along Bourbon Street was in full swing. The raucous sounds of live bands burst through the open doors onto the street, providing a soundtrack to the heady, aggressive drunken scene. Mostly young groups, with plastic cups of alcohol, hanging onto each other while whoo-hooing. It was sensory overload after such a quiet, reserved dinner.
One block over from Bourbon was our hotel, on Dauphine, and the difference was night and day. Hardly any people or noise. Our shelter from the storm.