The maitre'd, under the circumstances, was exceedingly gracious. The raucous sound of folks table-hopping filled the entrance hall as he said there was no room at the inn, and wouldn't be for several hours. “But,” he added pleasantly, “if you come back at about 5:15, I believe we can take care of you.”
When we returned, Joe in a jacket, we could see that the room still was busy and buzzing. In fact, for about a fourth of the ground floor dining room, still wearing its original, black and white tile floors, lunch itself, or at least the socializing part, was still in progress. But soon we were put at a generously sized table for two along one wall, perfect for watching the goings-on.
Not surprisingly, there was much discussion between us on the menu. It's large and has been expanded since our last visits many years ago, as has the whole restaurant, in fact. The wonky electrical system that made the lights flicker was replaced and the upstairs opened as a second non-smoking dining room and bar where reservations are accepted, unlike the room we were in. But downstairs, the mirrors remain, and the white tablecloths still hold Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce in their original bottles.
The waiter came by, and asked about drinks before dinner. "Yes, thanks," we said, and were starting to ask questions about appetizers when he broke in, "Drinks first. Then we'll talk about appetizers." We thought nothing of the remark, but soon realized that his routine was to insure a leisurely dinner by ordering one course at a time. Finish one, get to the next. Absolutely no feeling of being rushed, even on a very busy evening when most restaurants would have been planning to turn the table three times. It was a lovely contrast to places both in New Orleans and beyond; besides, it turns the evening into an occasion. We ended up leaving after 9:30, happily filled and extremely satisfied.
We began with the fried eggplant and souffle potatoes bearnaise. Fingers of eggplant, lightly battered and fried, and wide strips of potatoes that are deep-fried and puffed up as though air had been pumped into them, come with a dipping pot of the bearnaise, closer to a French version, mild and lighter on the lemon and tarragon than some. Another dipping pot arrived filled with powdered sugar, Galatoire's traditional accompaniment to the eggplant. An odd combination, to be sure, but there's some virtue to it. The dish was not as hot as it should have been, deflating the potatoes a little, but that was to be about the only glitch in the evening. Joe was unable to resist trying the sweetbreads, which were simply sliced, sauteed just until tender and served up with their buttery pan juices and some capers, framing their delicate flavor.
Oysters en brochette were skewered with bacon, again lightly breaded and flash-fried. Served on buttered toast, the two skewers of happiness showed how well the smokiness of bacon goes with the richness of an oyster. Our waiter had remarked that the soft-shell crabs were particularly fresh and large, which made the decision on a second main course much easier. Served meuniere style, dredged in flour and sauteed, sauced with some browned butter and lemon, they were shockingly good, in league with the best soft-shells we've had. As a side, we'd succumbed to spinach Rockefeller, the base for oysters Rockefeller, served solo. Moist and rich but not creamy, a light note of anisette bouncing along, it was irresistible. Along with glasses of Bonny Doon Albarino and Bastianich Rose, it was eminently satisfactory.
“Take your time,” said the waiter. “Catch your breath before you order dessert.” But we couldn't wait for the coffee. Excellent stuff it was, too, strong and hot and aromatic, a perfect match for bread pudding with a banana praline sauce, fluffy and moist.
But that's just the food. The dining room proved to be a splendid floor show. It had filled up rapidly, some of the lunch folks remaining until after 7 p.m., and the overall feeling reminded us of a wedding reception with a large, affable family. Every one else was getting the one-course-at-a-time treatment, too, and lots of good-looking food flew by. The rubbernecking was first-rate.
At one point, we looked up and saw our waiter across the room vigorously tapping on a glass with a spoon. “Awright, awright, it's Maurice's birthday, everybody,” he announced, the clamor having subsided slightly, and about half the room went into the traditional serenade. The strange thing was that it didn't feel like a routine from a chain dinner house, it just added to the family-party air. Later, a woman from a nearby party of five came to our table, smiled and asked, “Who do you write for?” (Is it that obvious?) We explained we were out of St. Louis, and she chatted warmly for a while, reporting that was her aunt's birthday, auntie in the azalea pink suit and pearls the size of marbles.
But probably the icing on the bread pudding, so to speak, was when Michael, our waiter, discovered we were from St. Louis, and pointed out another server to us. From St. Louis, too, he said. Soon enough, Shannon Jones showed up to say hello. Her first waiting job was at the old Webster Grill, so it was old home week, indeed.
Yes, it's not cheap. But there seems to be plenty of value for the money. And a lunch of a salad and an omelet could be had for under $25, not including beverage and tip. Not just a meal, an experience. And great food, too.
209 Bourbon St., New Orleans
Lunch & Dinner Tues.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes