Tuesday, April 9, 2013
All men have bias. One of mine, was a firmly held belief that Arnaud's was a has been, or maybe yet, a never was. A few years ago two group dinners in quick succession cemented in my skull that this old dame was getting by on purely the tourist, debutante, and Carnival trade. This is the worst combination of patrons to rely on for a restaurant recommendation. To wit, a dish of chicken pontalba arrived sans brabant potatoes. On other visit, creme brulee took a downmarket turn by substituting a ramekin of whipped cream for luscious custard. The response from the servers on both occasions, "Yeah, that's how that dish is served traditionally."
I was predisposed to develop a negative opinion on this restaurant.
But then a pitch perfect Sazerac arrived, cold and bracing under a faint whiff of anise. The first one dispatched, a second one arrived with little more than eye contact and desire. The handsome dining room soon took over with its glass and wood evoking, and at the same time establishing, this as a potential great place to spend a few hours eating and drinking. Certainly better, than say, prison.
Then a plate of souffle potatoes which brought to life an M.C. Escher drawing. Tucked into the folds of a starched napkin stood crisp, airy potatoes as fine as any served by its more famous relatives. They were hot and greaseless and a marvel of culinary architecture. It is as if the slices of potato trigger a natural defense mechanism and puff up to scare of prey. Do not worry, they are no match for a hungry appetite.
Less good was the much vaunted shrimp Arnaud, which suffered from a surprising blandness. A few more scoops of mustard or horseradish or a jolt of lemon were sorely needed. Baked oysters were inconsistent with a handful cold under their various topping or suffering from muddled flavors. The soups deserve your attention, especially a comforting and spicy rendition of turtle soup and a smoky, herbal gumbo z'herbes which gives Ms. Leah Chase's version considerable competition.
Pompano, veal, trout, steaks, etc... fill out the entrees with solid execution and minimal fuss. Sweetbreads are plump and crispy by technique and salty and rich by design with a meuniere sauce and capers. The traditions of French Creole classics are strictly adhered to with mostly superior results.
This isn't to say Arnaud's escapes criticisms. For one thing, the wine list is stuck in pre-Neanderthal days. Whoever is buying wine needs to look around and realize there are wine drinkers who a) cant afford a blockbuster Bordeaux or b) aren't content to drink a grocery store white burgundy at restaurant prices. Service, based largely on its proximity to the tourist trade, tends to treat anyone as a visitor. It would be better to reverse this and treat as everyone as a local.
We skipped dessert opting instead for the comfort of an after dinner drink at the French 75 Bar. There among an ambiance of dirty jokes and cigar smoke, Chris Hannah runs probably the finest restaurant bar in the world. If you find a better one, please let me know.
Taken as a whole, Arnaud's is an absolutely delightful place to be proven wrong.
Arnaud's: Is It Worth It? Yes.
813 Rue Bienville