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New Orleans #4: Dinner at Antoine’s
Antoine’s is a culinary institution of New Orleans, founded in 1840, introducing the Creoles to the ways of haute cuisine. Diana urged me to go there and have Oysters Rockefeller for her, since she wasn’t able to appreciate Oysters Rockefeller the last time she was there. What seven-year old would appreciate oysters, after all.
What grown Nick Nicholas would appreciate oysters, I mused. I’ve been a late adopter of seafood; mussels, I think I’ve only stopped minding in the past few years. And I’d never gotten the point of oysters, which I’ve pretty much always encountered in their natural briny state. Small, smily, briny, and pointless: that has been my verdict, which no amount of lemon or bacon topping has dislodged me from. And I didn’t notice any particular aphrodisiac benefit from consuming them.
I don’t know where that aphrodisiac notion would have come from anyway. Not from sympathetic magic, that’s for sure. “Sexy” is not the image I conjure up, swallowing one of these small slimy briny pointlessnesses.
But, I am here to be educated; so after wandering around the Upper French Quarter, and the obligatory steamboat cruise, I put on my best shirt and slacks, and headed to Louis St, to see what the fuss was about.
Antoine’s may have changed a lot in the last 170 years, but it tries not to let on. The exterior is dark, because it was 7 PM. The interior is opulent and padded, silverware and bowtied waiters. One concession to the twentieth century has been, the bowtied waiters include women. Another concession is that the waiters are integrated; I don’t rightly know which concession was made first. A third concession, less welcome: the menus were printed in Apple Chancery. I’m only intermittently a typography snob, but the place felt too venerable to be using a default system font.
I rejoice, in the abstract at least, that such places still exist, where jeans look out of place (though they still turned up). Where dining is stately and serious, if not austere. And though I ordered four courses with some trepidation, I rejoiced that the portions did not make the further concession to the twentieth century of being Supersized. I’m happy to pay more to have the portion be civilised-sized.
So how was it? Well, my experience of haute cuisine, such as it is, is Australian and 21st century. That means you’re not paying extra just for civilised-sized portions. You’re paying extra for the chefs to experiment: to come up with hybrid concoctions and innovative amalgams, to put together two things that don’t belong on the same page, and if you’re lucky, have them work together. And although all Creole cooking is novel to me, I wasn’t wowed with innovation here: it was 19th century food, and I’ve come to expect 22nd century food from such surrounds. Not that the place *should* have been Yet Another Fusion place, let alone one of those freeze-dry freakshows that flourish in the US latterly (bacon ice cream and whatnot.) But the food was somehow stolid. Not unpleasant, but not exciting.
The Oysters Rockefeller were so named because they had the richest sauce on oysters in existence, so they were named after the richest American of the time. (Would you have a Gates burger these days? A Buffet casserole?) There’s a lot of song and dance about the recipe being kept secret, and every chef outside Antoine’s merely guessing what the original ingredients are. The more malicious say even the chefs inside Antoine’s are guessing at this point.
I was worried to hear about the richness, and needn’t have been—although in deference to my recent diet, I did stop at four out of six oysters. The Rockefeller topping is a heated, delicately browned paste of green vegetable puree, rather agreeable. The colour says it should be spinach-based, and the chefs are adamant it isn’t; some literal-minded soul has snuck a sample to a lab, Wikipedia tells me, and I’m surprised to read no leeks were detected. The heated paste works with the oyster, and subdues it. Heating the oyster underneath the puree may have that effect too.
Crawfish étouffée is crawfish stew, reduced down to a little bowl of concentrated carameliness. The tiny bowls of gumbo and étouffée have been another New Orleanian delight. Given the density of the stews, you really don’t want your serving to be American-sized. I didn’t find the étouffée flavour noteworthy to begin with—the crawfish is *really* reduced, I could barely tell it had ever been near the bayou. But I ended up almost emptying the bowl. I stopped short, because my main was next, and I figured it would be American-sized.
The main was not American-sized, which was a pleasant surprise. Poulet sauce Rochambeau: Chicken with a mayonnaise/eggy sauce (in French, Béarnaise), over a strip of baked ham. Very tender, quite petit, and flavoursome: I bet the chickens are from the 19th century too. The white and red meat worked off each other unexpectedly well. The disappointment was the sauce: too generously slathered on, no real savour. Without knowing anything about it, I suspect that lack of subtlety to sauces is the downside of old haute cuisine.
Because I was a party of one, I could not have a Baked Alaska with “Antoine’s” embroidered on it in cream, or flambé cherries. Probably just as well. Desert was a tiny, delicate Peach Melba. First time I’ve had that too. Which is remiss of me, given that the dessert is named for Melbourne, via Dame Nellie Melba. The peaches may have been from a can, but somehow I doubt it: there was something candied about them, which doesn’t sit well with Safeway shelving. The almonds were a nice touch to the dessert too: the crunchiness gave it a subtle texture, not all eager to please and sugary.
And all dishes delivered officiously and solemnly—which I delighted in, being an emotionally constipated Australian, who does not want waiters darting across to ask how I’m doing every two minutes, or complimenting me on how wicked awesome my choice of entrée is. Australia is not a Libertarian Wonderland, and we’re socialist enough to pay our waiters, rather than have them fend for tips. That’s how I was brought up, that’s what I think right and proper.
Of course the clientele was not emotionally constipated; and once the waiters worked out the clientele weren’t, neither were they. One waiter was doing the recitation of dishes with the panache more familiar in American restaurants; another was telling the customers about how he couldn’t understand a word his Cajun grandfather spoke; a third broke into a wide smile chatting with the customers at the far end. But I would have none of that, and the waiters were perceptive enough to discern that too.
Which made my bathroom break all the more disconcerting, because the bathroom was next to the kitchen, and I discovered that the chefs in the kitchen were having a merry old time, yelling and banging and laughing. The occasional nouveau restaurant exposes the kitchen to the customers, like translucent clockwork on a wristwatch, so you can voyeur into your dinner preparation. (After watching one episode of Gordon Ramsay, I’m all voyeured out from that kind of thing.) Antoine’s will not expose the wristwatch through its padded walls; and that is proper. The mystique is part of the point of the place.
The highlight of the evening so far, though, was the final exchange I had with my elderly, slow-moving, taciturn, main waiter. (That I got the fittingly reserved treatment was probably as much about him as about me.) I’d signed my bill and left my credit card in the bill. The waiter handed me back my credit card, and said “there’s your cawd”.
Given my limited interactions with the locals, and the demographic changes in New Orleans, and the overall decrease in US English linguistic diversity—this was my one interaction with Yat dialect. “Yat” dialect is the local dialect of New Orleans, so called after “Where Y’at”, the local equivalent of “All hail, my good fellow”. I had not done any homework of course; so until John alerted me in comments—and linked to the wrong Yat—I had no idea that a non-rhotic dialect is spoken here. (Or that all the South was originally non-rhotic.)
Of course, I would hardly have noticed that the local dialect drops its r’s like Commonwealth English does, because the vowels are still American: it was “cawd” [kʰɒːd] here, not Australian “kaaahd” [kʰɐːd] (or [kʰaːd], if we’re trying how Australian we are). So while Americans think it sounds like Brooklynese, I think it sounds like Southern-via-JFK.
But then, my ear was always too tin to have made it as a phoneticist.
Not just testicles. If you examine a fresh oyster, you will see it is most definitely hermaphroditic. And if you poach an oyster gently with a little ham — WOW!
I don't know where that aphrodisiac . . .
They're loaded with zinc. Zinc (or so I've read) is an energy builder.
What did the girl oyster say to the boy oyster?
"You never open up to me."
"Smily" is a great image for oysters, bringing up visions of "The Walrus and the Carpenter"; alas, I suspect it's just a typo.
Oyster-eating is definitely sympathetic magic: by consuming a symbol of the enemy's testicles, you gain the enemy's potency. Hence my warning against mountain oysters, apparently known in Canada as prairie oysters. "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." –Jno. Swift
Sorry for the bad link, but it can't have hurt you to learn something about a now-obsolete Russian vowel letter, the bane of pre-1917 schoolchildren thanks to its unpredictable appearance in some words but not all. Would the Russians and the Americans of the 20th century have seen what all they had in common more easily, I wonder, if they could have swapped stories of agonizing failure at spelling bees? (I see this charming custom has spread to Australia, and even to Indonesia (!).)
French restaurants in North America of whatever era have very successfully resisted Supersizing, perhaps the only cuisine that has. Restaurants that serve Whole Coq Au Vin, or Hungry-Man Beef Bourguignon, or croc-sized portions of Ris de Veau Sauce Financière, remain thankfully quite unknown. In addition, there are both traditionalist and modernist French restaurants, and a Good Thing Too, say I, who prefer my French food a la Escoffier, as we say in the States. (Separated by a common language really does need more of an Ozite presence, in your copious spare time….)