"Carnival" means "farewell, flesh" (more or less) in Latin, and for several centuries now the devout have spent the Mardi before Lent enjoying enough gras to tide them over during the 40 abstinent days upcoming. Carnivals have flourished wherever the weather is tropical enough to allow for midwinter merrymaking alfresco, and like Venice and Rio, New Orleans fills the bill. (It's also the most sensually relaxed city in the United States, an important ambient component.) Just 50 years after that expedition up the Mississippi, the brand-new city of New Orleans hosted its first Mardi Gras fancy-dress ball. The first street processions, the first floats, and the first "throws" -- treats tossed to the crowd by the paraders -- came along in the 1830s. Since then the parties, the costumes, and the revelry have expanded to exponential dimensions, and today Mardi Gras and the several weeks of Carnival leading up to it are a globally renowned mishegoss of booze, bad behavior, and rambunctious fun.
But what do you do if you can't scrape up the dough for a trip to the Big Easy this coming Tuesday, Mardi Gras 2001? Three ideas. One: Go anyway and live lean for a while afterward. (How else can you experience the turtle soup at Galatoire's, the soft, moist air of the Mississippi, the R&B, blues, and zydeco that imbue and inform the city's back streets and alleyways?) Two: Have a Mardi Gras party of your own. (Simplicity itself: Invite everyone you know to drop by your place with shrimp and crawdads, set a kettle of shellfish boil to cooking on the stove, cover the kitchen table with newspapers, and slip the Dirty Dozen Brass Band onto the turntable. Offer King's Cake and champagne punch for a chaser.) Or three: Make your way down Third Street to the Monte Carlo Bar & Restaurant, one of the few good Creole venues this side of the Great Divide, and let the tastes of Louisiana work their Proustian magic.
From the outside the Monte Carlo looks a bit dive-y, with its frosted-glass windows set into padded double doors and its sign warning potential customers that the tops of their pants mustn't droop below waist level, but inside it's all starched white tablecloths, polished flatware, and comfortable wicker chairs. Wonderfully elaborate Carnival masks decorate a good deal of wall space. An attractive bar dominates one side of the room, and there's a small stage at one end of it for the occasional live performance. For in-between times, the jukebox is thoughtfully stocked with the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, B.B. King, James Brown, and others. Beads in the traditional Carnival colors of purple (for justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power) hang suspended from the overhead light fixtures, creating a lovely, hypnotic effect -- and an inviting setting for a long and hedonistic lunch.
To wit: a Bloody Mary to start, an exceptionally fine Bloody Mary with plenty of depth and character in its spicy soul. "I'm from Louisiana, so I like it hot," said Theresa DeRouen, the owner/operator of the Monte Carlo and also our waitress. She had just been home (to New Iberia, home of Avery Island and its chief export, Tabasco sauce) and had brought back to San Francisco not only several hundred pounds of crawfish but a few more Carnival masks for the walls. DeRouen runs her place like a devoted, no-nonsense mom, and she makes everyone feel at home. To go with the Bloody Marys we had fingers of meaty catfish dipped in cornmeal batter and fried until the moist and steamy stage, with excellent, crispy-hot crinkle-cut french fries on the side. Also: fried chicken wings, spicy and crunchy on the outside, juicy within, and impossible to resist. Best of the starters, though, is the house-made boudin, the delicate white-rice sausage. The Monte Carlo's version falls apart into a fragrant platter of herbs, spices, and creamy, rich pork as soon as your fork touches it. A glorious dish.
The entrees (which come with soup or salad, both of them simple yet admirable) presented a personal conundrum: Do I get an oyster loaf with chow-chow, one of the glories of low-rent New Orleans cuisine, a sandwich starring that inimitable sausage, le andouille, or the blackened catfish with capers and hollandaise? In the end we opted for the shrimp Creole, which offered up such a rich evocation of its component parts -- the great Louisiana triad of tomato, celery, and pepper -- that the shrimp's overcooked nature was nothing more than a mild annoyance. "Etouffee" translates to "smothered," and that's a fine and fitting description of the crawfish etouffee maison -- the pungent little mud bugs (conveniently shelled here) got the royal treatment in a roux rich with spices, drippings, and TLC. But nothing beat the red beans and rice, the best red beans and rice I'd tasted since Chez Helene closed up shop 13 years ago. If soul food is food that comforts your insides while it warms your belly and soothes your id, this was soul food. The beans were silky and succulent, the ham hock dripped with long-simmered culinary character, the andouille sausage was smoky and powerfully good, and the fluffiness of the rice caught it all like a cushion. Ice-cold beer -- preferably Red Stripe -- is the accompaniment of choice.
Since DeRouen had just gotten back from Louisiana the night before, there were no desserts available during our visit. So, to bring this lengthy gustatory siesta to its proper close we enjoyed (on the chef's recommendation) a round of Grand Marnier and sodas on the rocks -- sparkly, cool, sweet, and citrusy all at once. Beyond lunchtime, the only food served at the Monte Carlo are bowls of gumbo and a selection of hot appetizers -- barbecued shrimp, buffalo wings, frog legs, and the like -- to go with the nighttime drinking and music (the place transforms itself into a loud and lively bar after dark). "It's too crowded here at night for formal dining," said DeRouen.
Coda: If you really want to experience Carnival bon temps Louisiana style, the Monte Carlo is hosting a black-tie Mardi Gras ball on Saturday, March 3. Live blues and zydeco by Lady Bluebird will accompany the Creole menu, and apropos costumes are encouraged. The festivities take place from 7 p.m. till 1:30 a.m. The cover charge is a mere $10 -- quite the bargain for such a venerably rambunctious event. Let the good times roll!