It takes a village of chefs to create a regional cuisine. Antoine's started the roux in 1840, Tujaques added some spice in 1852, Commander's Palace marched in about 1880, Gallatoire threw in his two scents in 1905, Brennan's stirred things up eventually -- and in the middle of 1918, Arnaud Cazenave turned up the heat in the Big Easy oven.
Their sign has been swinging in the wind a long time, and with a brash, permanent declaration, they tattooed their name on the sidewalk. These tiles represent the indelible memories from my fantastic experience at Arnaud's.
Wind whooshed as I pulled the ancient, sturdy doors open and activated a time machine. As I walked down Arnaud's fern-lined cement tunnel of a hallway, the lichen growing on the walls smelled delicious as it mixed with the aromas of cooking food. The noise of clinking glasses rattled me into re-entry and the gravitational pull of convivial chatter guided me straight into the ornate bar and back into a roaring time.
I landed on a stool, face-to-face with mixologist Chris Hannah, who shook me a ginger-laced morning mocktail. He's a master craftsman and showman who makes mixing a drink as gorgeous, timeless and dramatic as Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner having a fight.
The outside world has no idea what's going on in here. Even Prohibition didn't close this place, it just drew a thick, penetrable curtain and asked guests for a password. Time respectfully stands guard.
New Orleans is a colorful deck of cards. Arnaud Cazenave shuffled into town, dubbed himself not a King but a Count and opened his restaurant. History, as rich as their Bernaise sauce, is ladled on extra thick, oozes out of the walls and all over their Filet Mignon Charlemond. He helped write the huge, legendarily mythic Creole Cookbook that the present owners and chefs at Arnaud's still honor.
At least once a day, preferably in the cool and quiet of the evening, one should throw all care to the winds, relax completely and dine leisurely and well. - Count Arnaud Cazenave
When the time came to dine, we were led into the tall-windowed, bustling bistro on a circuitous path, over the tiled floor, between chairs, through the entire room, as if a game piece on a checkered board strategically being played. We ended up at the best table, front and center. The room is bright and the diners free to be noisy. Vibrant jazz was playing, making the vintage crystal chandeliers clinkily dance the Charleston above our heads. Service is the star, and waiters deftly careen carts through tight spaces, stop and dramatically flambé bananas as if they are pulling a rabbit out of a hat, with an implied tada. You're onstage in the middle of a carefully choreographed, delightful musical production.
I was lunching with two other television comedy writers, so when Captain Brian Owens snapped out of nowhere to whisk our chairs away, we all reacted to his courteous gallantry as if he were pulling a vaudeville gag, expecting us to fall for it and onto the floor. I was wrong and quickly learned that Brian doesn't just roll out the red carpet, he wraps it around you to let you know you're in great hands.
He is an expertly attentive waiter, and his crisp precision has reason and training behind it, like his perfect posture. I looked at the table. The bright white table linens make the venerable room crisp, like an old lady in a new hat, which always makes me smile.
This is a place where everyone gets their own ramekin of butter as if it's a ration you are expected to use up. I did what I always do and eased my knife in and tasted the butter a bit to see if it's real -- as if discreetly copping a feel of a woman's boob during a hug to detect an implant.
Their menu is written like a politician's speech, with simple bullet points: Appetizers, Soups, Fish, Fowl, Meats, Desserts. Like a passionate fire-and-brimstone speaker, each dish goes off script in a flourished, detailed description to sway your vote: Alligator sausage tantalizingly seasoned in Arnaud's own creole mustard, conjures up an image of some bayou man wrestling the gator and hitting it on the head with a jug, then dragging it in the back door of the kitchen to haggle with the chef over the price.
That chef is Tommy DiGiovanni, who grew up in New Orleans. God personally handed him a jar of filé spice and put his other hand firmly on Tommy's head and kept him at about five feet tall -- saying, I need you close to the food.
Tommy opened my meal with a cork pop of an amuse bouche. Arnaud's Souffle Potatoes are reputed to have been a French chef's accident, just as monk Dom Perignon caused champagne. These puffy pommes de terre hit my tongue like carbilicious bubbles.
I pity the next French fry I pick up.
New Orleans is called both the Big Easy and Fat City; it's a dangerous place that makes you feel glad to be alive. I whipped my belt off, tossed it in the air and ordered with the reckless abandon of a condemned man screaming out my last requests.
Their signature dishes are highlighted in red like featured hookers in good lingerie positioned along a bordello's staircase. I asked for their Oysters Arnaud, Shrimp Arnaud, Turtle Soup, Pompano en Croute, Lousiana Quail Elzey and Smothered Okra.
I waited for the Mardi Gras cuisine parade to dazzle me. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Brian and his team were my Krewe, ensuring that I had a ball. That they've been doing this since 1918 makes Arnaud's elaborate production a much longer running show than Cats. And Broadway never serves snacks.
As the oyster sampler arrived, I reached out and grabbed the lemon, appreciating the thoughtful seed-catching net. Suddenly, a distinguished, professorial man in great eyeglasses ran across the room as if my Jheri-curled hair was on fire, screaming Stop!! I dropped the lemon, and put my hands up in the air. It was Charles, the maître d', speaking in an accent like mysteriously seasoned food where I may not recognize the spice but try to figure it out. He admonished me to Let the oysters tell YOU they want lemon!
Ah, New Orleans, cocktails and spankings before noon.
Each oyster produced a wonderful, unique flavor pearl. In one I found andouille sausage, in another the chef hid artichoke hearts. My nose smelled bacon before my tongue detected Pernod in the Oysters Rockefeller. How long did I have before the absinthe's hallucinations kicked in?
I'm thinking about sending the Shrimp Arnaud to NOLA native Ellen DeGeneres for a makeover. Her trainer could shed ten pounds by shaking off half of the thick, sweet dressing. Her stylist could yank the plain iceberg lettuce back to 1950, and tastefully replace it on a bed of spicy arugula.
Squeezing these lemon slices was like trying to fold a basketball. The tomato was mealy; our table pitched that we'd like to see a seasonally appropriate foundation, like crispy cucumber.
I love fish in pastry. When I ordered the Pompano en Croute, Brian cautioned that it contained scallop mousse. Full disclosure, he whispered, looking over his shoulder, some people don't like creamed scallops, he said. I loudly invited all diners in the room who didn't care for creamy, rarely attempted scallop mousse to leave the city.
I hope Brian didn't think we were handfishin' hillbillies with our comparison to their fish in pastry and pot pie. It's a really high compliment. Pot pie is an amazing self-contained meal. Usually one has to microwave it and eat it alone watching Dynasty reruns in only underwear. I'm glad the Carringtons can't see me eating from the disposable tinfoil plate. But look at me now -- in Arnaud's fancy dining room, being waited on hand and foot, and served the same delicious cuisine.
I'd love to dart in the kitchen to humbly suggest livelier pastry on this fish entreé, the fin perhaps flipping up a bit, or the scales more pronounced. Maybe replace the dated sprigs of parsley with festive chopped confetti. I'd run out of the kitchen toute de suite because everyone in there has more knife skills than my one class got me.
There's no time for them to implement my ideas, when I met Chef Tommy he told me they serve about 350 lunches a day. As the food rapidly pops out from behind the line, it is handled like Lucy working a conveyor belt by his expert expeditor, who tosses dishes in the air like a master plate spinner. They fly up and out, safely landing on waiter's trays. The back of the house communicates with the front of the house with the expert rapidity of teenage girls texting.
We ordered a lot of plates, yet they all landed on our table with the fluidity of well-timed jets on a busy runway. It's no accident that our meal was handled by Captain Brian with expert military precision. He ran the Secret Service detail for Texas Governor George Bush. Bush's fire went out, Katrina called for help, and he responded by moving to New Orleans. The only looking back he does is to check on my turtle soup -- which the chef keeps locally delicious with a hint of Creole spice and Tabasco. Using a bit of lemon makes Chef Tommy, and the soup, bright.
Arnaud's is an open book and Brian is an excellent narrator. He traces the roots of certain cocktails all the way back to legendary local pirates. He told me that Arnaud's dishy daughter Germaine lived in the building until she died. I imagine a senile old lady, her gray hair loose and waving in the breeze, walking down in her nightgown in the middle of dinner service and tasting the soup from a guest's bowl. Mmmm, nice and spicy, she'd say, as she turned and left to resume her search for an old beau.
Like Pia's act, my comedy writing dining partners savagely grabbed the quail's tender body and ripped her to shreds.
We didn't order dessert -- it just sort of happened. There was an unexplained bagpipe procession through the room, but, hey, it was Mardi Gras. You know, if you disregard the maudlin music bagpipes produce, and focus on the fantastic fact that the kilted players are usually commando under that itchy wool skirt, it's not so sad.
We were presented a chunk of marble destined for greatness, I used my fork as a sculptor's chisel and soon the velvety rich bread pudding was putty in my mouth. It had been slid onto the table alongside a Mississippi-bound barge of chocolate espresso cake, accented with the heroic swagger of local dark, rich and strong chicory.
He expertly peeled a lemon and orange, but left part of the orange peel attached, as if to prolong it's nakedness. He must have felt bad about peeling it, because he tucked the lemon peel inside the orange, and started reattaching both peels onto the orange by sticking cloves in. I don't know who he thought he was fooling, the cloves were as obvious as the neck bolts holding on Frankenstein's head.
Peeling citrus must be a crime in these parts, because in a desperate move to hide all evidence, Charles poured liquor all over the orange, and lit it on fire!
Brian could have spent hours by our table explaining why New Orleans is called the Paris of the South. But being a man of action, he took us around the entire mazey complex of rooms and showed us. We went up and down creaky back staircases, surprising smoking busboys and busting up trysts. The hallways and back passages are riddled with historically savory flavors and characters.Take a wrong turn and you end up on Bourbon Street.
I was in the very soul of Arnaud's entire establishment -- the famed museum of Germaine's glorious Mardi Gras days. Their honor to her legacy is actually moving and you can almost hear the screams of the revelers in the streets, celebrating her record number of festive reigns. Her life flashed before my eyes as the sequins' reflection bounced off the sparkly sweeping capes. The fanciful ball gowns behind the glass cases are beautifully maintained and magnificent, and so heavily detailed I know some nuns went blind sewing on beads, praying for the Bedazzler to be invented.
Like every Mardi Gras, or any meal, Germaine herself, or even life -- the time always comes for us to leave. We all had a good, hopefully memorable run.
Brian, and Arnaud's, is why you come to New Orleans. Every day they walk in these amazing buildings and shake the legacy awake that was created by Arnaud Cazenave, and present it to their guests in the most honorable way. Chef Tommy stirs in his own spice to the well-seasoned traditional food.
Brian walked us down the the same hallway to leave Arnaud's that I had entered. Perhaps it was the outrageous colonial governor Marquis de Vaudreuil who turned New Orleans from marshland into a petite Paris back in the 1700s, but it's the current residents like Brian and Chef Tommy that keep it so.
I pushed the doors open, and sharp rain hit the satin of my umbrella, making me think that I heard glasses clinking behind me. I turned around, and almost hit a hitching post, but sidestepped just in time.
I'm glad that Arnaud's didn't get the signal that anything is over.
Arnaud's. 813 Bienville Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70112. (504) 523-5433