By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
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By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
I make my living remembering meals, and some of the food I've eaten has stayed delicious in my mind for decades: the first lunch I had at the late, lamented Ritz Old Poodle Dog, downtown, with my father, when I was 6 (lamb chops and scallops); an all-dessert birthday lunch with my mother at the late, lamented Blum's, when I was perhaps 10 (hot fudge sundae and lemon meringue pie); a fancy French dinner at the late, lamented Ondine in Sausalito (tournedos Rossini and Grand Marnier soufflé) when I was around 12. Lots of the most memorable meals have occurred while traveling, of course, the unfamiliarity of the food and the location contributing to the creation of indelible souvenirs: veal cutlets and rosti potatoes in Zurich, truffle risotto and bistecca Fiorentina in Siena, flash-fried shrimp and crab pulled from tanks in Hong Kong.
Seafood salad $18
Crawfish étouffée $21
Louisiana bouillabaisse $26
Shrimp Drago $23
Red beans and rice main $17, side $3
Crawfish grits $4
Bistro menu served in the barroom Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; fine-dining dinner menu served in the dining room nightly from 5 to 11:15
Muni: 12, 15, 41
Noise level: moderate to high
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.
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