Heirloom tomatoes. Heritage pork. Lots of old, traditional foods are being rediscovered and saluted, thanks to heroic cooks and restaurateurs who didn't let them die out. It's that way with restaurants, too, sometimes. And there are plenty of examples in New Orleans, a city where, like St. Louis, “We've always done it this way,” is a common explanation for all sorts of things.
Pascal's Manale has been serving Italian Creole for 98 years. A few blocks off St. Charles avenue and a few blocks beyond the Garden District, it's an unassuming spot from the outside, with a parking lot behind it and a modest entrance that leads to a large bar where folks knock back oysters and wait for their tables. Pascal's can fill up quickly during Mardi Gras, other festivals and holidays, and large conventions. The dining rooms looks as though they've not been changed much since, oh, perhaps the Kennedy Administration, simple and decorated mainly with clippings and photographs. Lots of clippings and photographs. The lighting is lower than one might expect, although we're told it was darker before the post-Katrina clean-up.
Barbecued shrimp originated here. It's become identified with New Orleans, but it doesn't involve smoking or tomato sauce. It's not an ancient dish, either, but dates from 1955 when a customer came in and talked about a dish he'd had on a trip. The kitchen tried to re-create it. They didn't quite manage, but the result became a classic.
We kicked things off with, in the menu's phrase, a combination remoulade. It's a cocktail dish of boiled shrimp and lump crabmeat, topped with remoulade sauce over the crabmeat in the center and cocktail sauce over the shrimp that surrounded it. Remoulade sauce, in its Creole manifestation, is a mayonnaise that's kicked way up with chopped aromatic vegetables, Creole whole-grain mustard and (sometimes) horseradish, plus whatever magic each particular kitchen decides to use. The seafood was cold and fresh and moist, the sauces both with a little bite to them but not enough to demand anything beyond a cool beverage of choice to offset things.
Oysters Bienville, with a cheese-mushroom-shrimp topping, weren't remarkably handsome; they seldom are. But the oysters were fresh, large and juicy, and the topping nothing short of succulent. Bienvilles have served as a gateway drug to oyster neophytes, and this would be perfect for them. Old New Orleans Hands also revel.
Now, about those barbecued shrimp: While you can find them all over town these days, we thought it important to try them here. Joe has eaten them many times in many cities since his introduction here in the run-up to Super Bowl IV in 1970; this was Ann's first visit to the motherhouse.
Huge. Heads on. Yes, heads on, unshelled, feelers waving merrily as they swim in a Lake Ponchartrain of butter. The butter is seasoned generously with garlic and pepper and probably other things, although it, too, was not vigorously spiced, unlike some other versions. Each serving arrives with two waiters, one to place the dish and the other to ceremoniously tie a plastic bib around the neck of the customer. Extra napkins, too, are brought to the table, because there is no way to eat these with knife and fork. Fingers and plenty of bread are the weapons of choice. Occasionally the shrimp can be overcooked, but these huge crustaceans surely weren't.
Indeed they do need to be shelled. The heads also need to be pinched off. Those who understand and obey the Crayfish Commandment, “You gotta suck dey heads”, may follow the same advice here. The succulent heads are the richest part of the shrimp, but not everyone is up for such Faustian indulgence. Despite the generous amount of bread given and refilled as requested, it's close to impossible for one person to consume the entire dish, given the lashings of butter. (The waiter said the kitchen melts 50 pounds of it at a time.)
Of course there's pasta. A dish simply entitled Crabmeat and Scallops brings capellini tossed with bay scallops, lots of crabmeat, a little green onion and a touch of sweet red pepper, some olive oil, a little cream and certainly a jot of white wine. The result was practically as rich as a proper fettuccine Alfredo, and so wonderfully flavorful, tasting of the sea, the onion and the mysteries of the wine. The capellini was close to being overcooked, but with a sauce like that, we were in a forgiving mood.
In retrospect, it's hard to imagine why we went for a dessert. And yet, thinking about the dessert, we are more than glad we did. This was the best bread pudding we had this visit. Light and moist and, to be sure, rich, it sported a few raisins and was topped with a scoop of brandy butter that also gave a serious nod to vanilla. We later discovered the bread pudding recipe the restaurant gives out calls for a pound and a half of butter for three loaves of French bread. We keep meaning to check on how often the American College of Cardiology meets in New Orleans.
Service is keen-eyed but not formal, and happy to explain dishes to newcomers. But on a normal weeknight, it's easy to tell that most guests are locals, and regular visitors. Not much of a wine list, but that's not what folks come for. We suggest reservations no matter when you visit.
1838 Napoleon Ave., New Orleans
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor