The two French Quarter oyster bars that are the stuff of arguments are Felix's and the Acme, across the street from one another and a mere block from Canal Street. Both attract a mixture of localsand visitors, both are slightly scruffy in the manner of many old New Orleans favorites, and both, of course, have their passionate fans. Long before we knew each other, we preferred Felix's, and neither of us had visited for a number of years, even before Hurricane Katrina. A recent visit gave us a chance to try both.
The Acme has changed the most. Once it closed at 8 p.m., and all day Sunday; no more, since new owners took over. They've changed that, enlarged it a little and added two more locations in theNew Orleans suburbs and others in Baton Rouge and Destin, Fla. Waiting diners cool their heels in a line on the sidewalk, although the wait seems rather brief.
Oysters in their many local styles are the game at both places, although we're told they do fine renditions of other traditional Creole/Cajun foods. We kicked off, of course, with oysters on the half shell. Louisiana oysters are usually larger but milder than their cousins from colder waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, lacking much of the mineral taste those display. Gulf oysters can be a pleasant experience, but we prefer the big flavor of the cold-water varieties. Still, it was summer, andthe Louisiana shellfish suffer less from the heat. These were satisfactory, but we have missed the pleasure of sitting and watching a skillful shucker for a while. On the other hand, the grilled oysters, shucked but left on the shell, put on a grill and slathered with garlic butter, were excellent. Our only complaint was that they were too salty, which our server told us can be remedied by ordering themwith light (or no) salt. Use plenty of the only-in-New-Orleans bread with its paper-thin, ultra-crisp crust to sop up the remaining juice.
Soft shell crabs are in season, and a poor boy sandwich featured one of the largest we've ever seen. This is not the version that is lightly floured, then sauteed in butter, we see at home and on much of the East Coast. In New Orleans, they're battered and deep-fried for outstanding sandwiches. We found the batter rather too thick, but the meat was incredibly succulent. Tabasco mayonnaise was a nice touch, too. We had a side of jambalaya, which was too dry and gluey, and its flavor too bland.
First-rate service from a guy so good-looking we wished we'd had one of the Apprentice Eaters with us.
The next day we crossed the street to Felix's for another late lunch and found it quieter as we walked by the raw bar's charming neon sign,“Eat Oysters, Love Longer.” A dozen on the half-shell were better than those at the Acme, arriving more flavorful, juicier and colder. Felix's offers oysters Rockefeller and Bienville, and Ann's long enjoyed their Bienvilles, which are traditionally topped with cheese. Felix's has updated the recipe she recalls from years ago, adding chopped shrimp, which increases their pleasure. The oysters are only lightly cooked, retaining their juiciness, the whole thing piping hot.
A soft-shell crab poor boy brought a smaller crab in a lighter batter. The meat, however, remained equally delicious. Our extra dish here was bread pudding, very traditional New Orleans dish, found in almost every restaurant and home. It varies from kitchen to kitchen, just like poultry stuffing (or dressing, if you prefer that terminology). Felix's is a sturdy, firm version that contains both bananas and fruit cocktail, with an excellent custard sauce. Bread pudding is a dish where we differ; Joe likes it dense and Ann likes it tender and fluffy, but she found this version very good indeed.
Another amiable server, this time a tall, competent woman who'd clearly been doing this job a good while.
The edge, in our minds, still goes to Felix's. And we'd point out that while there are no reservations at either, they're both family-friendly, something that will encourage young eaters. (Ann's son probably ate his first shrimp at Felix's, and at the same meal, watched gap-jawed as she knocked back raw oysters.)
Acme Oyster House
724 Iberville St., New Orleans
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: No
Sandwiches and entrees: $8-$21
Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar
739 Iberville St., New Orleans
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Difficult
Sandwiches and entrees: $8-$17