But none have stayed more fresh for me than the extraordinary meals I had on a serious eating trip to New Orleans with my friends Jeff and John. Lots of planning and horse-trading went into our selection of serious places for dinner and less serious spots for lunch (though the less serious lunches yielded unforgettable experiences: eating numberless oysters in the entirely tiled, refrigerator-chilly confines of Casamento's Oyster Bar; slurping barbecued shrimp in Pascal's Manale; peeling mountains of spicy, cold-boiled crawfish on a scarred wood table in some dive whose name escapes me). We consulted guidebooks, friends, and locals, and supped at Emeril's (long before catchphrases like "Bam!" and "Kick it up a notch" obscured the fact that he is a great chef), Brigtsen's, Bayona, and Commander's Palace, among others. We ate gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, muffulettas at the Central Grocery, beignets and chicory coffee at the Café Du Monde.
As a child, I was fascinated by the lavish meals Frances Parkinson Keyes describes in Dinner at Antoine's: especially oysters Foch (fried oysters atop pâté de foie gras- encrusted toast, napped with Madeira sauce) and roasted duck, covered in a sauce made with the aid of a duck press à la the Tour d'Argent. But Antoine's was not on our list. Nor was Galatoire's (partly because it doesn't take reservations, and we didn't want to devote any portion of our stay to standing in line). But since Antoine's had been around since 1840, and Galatoire's since 1905, I figured I would get my chance.
During the past couple of weeks, I was out of town and spending much more time in the dark, with my eyes glued to flickering lights projected on a screen, than anywhere else, including at table. (I think I had four real sit-down meals in two weeks.) But there was a hunger-related litany running through my head: "I've been trying to get back to New Orleans," I thought with sharp pain, "ever since I was there." Not just for the food, of course: I loved the architecture and the streetcars and the music and the Spanish moss, among a lot of other things. (I was somewhat less enamored of voodoo, public drunkenness, and the side of New Orleans viewed on Girls Gone Wild, but nobody's perfect.)
The current impossibility of getting back to New Orleans anytime soon made my hunger for the French- and Spanish-influenced Creole cuisine and the less fancy but equally succulent Cajun cooking even greater. I knew that a New Orleans-based restaurateur had opened an S.F. branch in the old Condor Club in North Beach, and Robert and Gail were able to join me there for dinner the night after I got back to town.
"I don't recognize the place," Robert says as we enter by the door on Broadway, which leads to the more posh, dinner-only room (there's an entrance on Columbus for the more casual room, with nightly live music, a long bar, comfy booths, and an all-day menu described as "casual bistro"). It turns out, much to my surprise, that Robert played in a band at the old Condor a couple of nights a week, decades ago. I don't recognize the place either, but then I was never here before. There are lots of immaculate white tablecloths, metal-armed chairs upholstered in formal-looking brocade, and a long banquette against one wall that looks good to me until I sink down in it and suddenly feel like I'm a kid sitting at the grown-up table. I'm also not fond of the many flat-screen TVs set along the walls, which seem to be playing a DVD of a documentary on New Orleans nightlife, with the sound turned off: the kind that shows on Bravo or A&E. There's also, oddly, a circlet of white, semitransparent material hanging from the ceiling, on which the same DVD is projected.
Luckily we are distracted by the menu, laden with luscious-sounding dishes, made even more dizzying by the spiel we get from one of the managers, recently displaced from New Orleans to Chinatown, and our server. There's a blackboard chalked with the night's fresh fish, both local and sent in from the functioning parts of the gulf. We are tempted by oysters Rockefeller and the even more decadent-sounding oysters bleu cheese (fried and served atop sautéed spinach on French bread, topped with bleu cheese sauce, crumbled Maytag, and crisp bacon), but we go with fried Delta catfish, turtle soup, and seafood salad. We moan as we see the dishes being carried to our table from the kitchen counter; they look so large, but once we take our first bites, we realize that the portions are manageable, because they're so damned tasty.
Robert's heap of cornmeal-crusted catfish fillets is sweet (I miss the characteristic whiff of Delta mud, but just a tiny bit), meaty, knowingly fried, and as easy to eat as potato chips. For once, the menu-ese of "flash fried to perfection" is accurate. Gail's turtle soup has shreds of the pale, elusively fishy meat floating in what the menu, again accurately, terms a "robust broth": tomato based, full of chopped vegetables, and so heartily seasoned that it tastes Indian to Robert. Our server, who adds a slug of sherry to it at table, is coy about its seasoning; I taste the expected oregano, thyme, garlic, and pepper -- probably lots of cayenne. I love everything on my long, rectangular plate of assorted seafood salads: a shrimp rémoulade with both fried and boiled jumbo shrimp; an impeccable snowy crab Louis filled with big lumps of crab; a surprisingly tart crawfish salad made with the ingredients found in the olive sauce served on muffulettas (including pickled vegetables, assorted olives, capers, and lots of lemon juice and good olive oil); and an even more surprising tangle of briny black seaweed topped with what the menu calls Louisiana choupique caviar -- there are both big red beads and tiny black ones. I judiciously share bites of all these treats with my companions, though my heart breaks a little as I do so. Somehow I want them to share my pleasure without diminishing the amount of food available to me! I even eat the butter lettuce that the seafood rests on, drenched as it is with yummy sauces, and wipe the plate clean with a bit of good bread (a gesture repeated throughout the meal; the dishwasher here has an easy job).
We're even happier with our main courses. "This food," Robert says, "is just about being delicious." He thought he wanted red beans and rice (served over ham hocks as a main course) or jambalaya, but he changes his mind when he spies that they are also available as sides, and goes for the crawfish étouffée, lots of the fresh, pink, tiny, lobsterlike beasts in a very dark, roux-based, peppery-hot sauce, served with steamed white rice topped with chopped scallions. I try the shrimp Drago, which has an assortment of all the ways they do shrimp (grilled, blackened, and fried), each topped with a different rich sauce: grilled with brandy sauce, blackened with winy bordelaise sauce, and fried with a sticky cream sauce dense with crab flakes. Gail's Louisiana bouillabaisse is a triumph, full of tiny black mussels (still in the shell), scallops, oysters, shrimp, squid, crawfish, and slices of small okra. I dip my spoon in probably more than I should, and I especially enjoy the still-crisp baby okra. The red beans and rice is properly smoky, the tomato-and-rice jambalaya full of sausage, chicken, and seafood (Robert looks forward to a future plateful of this), and we also get a cup of grits topped with crawfish swimming in butter, oh my. We wash all this down with a nice and amazingly inexpensive Luberon red, chosen from a smart and affordable list.
Dessert ends the meal on a muted note, at least for me: I'm not enthralled with either the apple galette -- sliced apples on a round of puff pastry, served warm with sliced bananas, bananas Foster ice cream, and candied pecans -- or the Chocolate Decadence, a sundae made of "ooey gooey chocolate cake" topped with Baileys Irish Cream, dark chocolate mocha gelato, whipped cream, and more candied pecans. I sigh, thinking of Commander's Palace's unforgettable bread pudding soufflé, or even of a humble banana pudding with Nilla Wafers.
As we exit, the New Orleans jazz band is playing "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" I miss the House of Seafood for just a couple of days, and return with Hiya to lunch in the barroom under the storied white piano upon which Carol Doda was nightly lowered to do her act at the Condor (and which played a part in a notorious death in which a stripper was pinned under a crushed Condor employee all night when the instrument, serving them as an impromptu bed, suddenly rose to the ceiling unbidden. I know it sounds apocryphal, but you could look it up). The bowl of gumbo we share, full of sausage, chicken, and crawfish, with the ineffable scent of filé (sassafras) powder, is the only dish as successful as those I'd had at dinner. Both the popcorn shrimp and the fried oysters (served atop French bread) suffer from the same fate: fried at too low a temperature and brought too slowly to the table, resulting in soft crusts. The fried oysters especially need the contrast of a crisp layer for their soft, creamy insides. Hiya enjoys her unusual seafood muffuletta: shrimp, crawfish, and catfish, with melted provolone and olive salad, on a big round roll, served with excellent house-made potato chips.
The Jaegers have another restaurant on Decatur in the French Quarter that survived Katrina, but, since there's nobody to feed there right now, they're sticking around the San Francisco outpost. When we leave, we take a couple of Red Cross envelopes with us, so we can put our money where our mouth (and heart) is. As an article in the Los Angeles Times put it: "Other cities have specialties, a hoagie here or a chimichanga there. New Orleans has a cuisine, a rich, vibrant, fully evolved style of cooking from centuries in a pivotal location. There the melting pot actually lived up to the great American concept, blending African, West Indian, French, Spanish, Italian, Cajun, and recently Vietnamese into one exuberant good-times roll." I'm happy that we can enjoy it here, but I won't be truly happy until we can enjoy it there once again.