Famous "lost dishes" from New Orleans' dining past are turning up again at newer restaurants around town.
The appeal of the new holds powerful sway in food and dining, as the excitement over new restaurants, the interest in new flavors and the buzz of new food trends reminds us constantly. But, to paraphrase liberally from William Faulkner’s immortal quote, the dining of the past is not dead. In fact, in New Orleans at least, it's often right there on your plate.
Sure, the famous old-line restaurants are celebrated for hardly ever changing a thing, besides maybe their prices. And plenty of neighborhood joints around town offer a similar time warp dining experience. But lately, the New Orleans obsession with the past, even in its food, has been turning up more and more and at restaurants that otherwise have a modern bent.
It’s taking the form of retro dishes and tribute recipes that are either heavily influenced by, or taken straight from, the menus of extinct but well-remembered New Orleans restaurants.
One of the most prominent in that category has to be Uglesich’s, which closed in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina, but is still much talked about for the way its superlative local seafood lured diners to an otherwise unlikely Central City address. One of its signature dishes was called trout muddy waters, with a sauce of broth, anchovies and jalapenos that was more about flavor than heat. If that sounds tasty to you, well, today you can find a tribute version on the menus of at least three New Orleans restaurants — Mondo in Lakeview, and at the Uptown fine-dining spots Martinique Bistro and Clancy’s.
Restaurant Mandich in the Bywater was another quirky destination for Creole cooking that had a history beginning in 1922, but ending in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. And again, one of its better-known dishes, oysters Bordelaise, today lives on at the Uptown restaurant Upperline, where these spicy fried oysters with garlic and oil are known as oysters St. Claude — the name a nod to the old Mandich address. At Brigtsen’s in the Riverbend, the legacy of the former West Bank standout Leruth’s Restaurant is remembered in baked oysters LeRuth, topped with shrimp and crabmeat.
Meanwhile, Restaurant R’Evolution in the French Quarter has crafted a whole roster of tribute dishes, served as specials during weekday lunch. These range from red beans and rice inspired by the Creole soul food legend Buster Holmes to a weiner schnitzel in homage to Kolb’s, the German restaurant that operated for almost a century in the CBD. Dishes from Maylie’s, La Louisiane, Elmwood Plantation, the Caribbean Room, Toney’s Pizza and Spaghetti House, the Andrew Jackson Restaurant and again Leruth’s are found among these tribute specials too.
What’s behind it all? Maybe a sociologist would tell us it’s a blowback against the increasingly modern trends taking root or the rapid pace of change across our city. Or maybe it goes deeper still. Our traditional cuisine is entwined with history and culture, but it’s also fueled by chefs and restaurateurs who both inspire and mentor the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs. The impact of chefs, of restaurants and even of their signature dishes runs deep. So here we do more than just pay lip service to our past, sometimes we even fill our bellies with it.