A retro iceberg lettuce wedge salad (back in fashion) was disappointing. It had raw red-onion slivers, cherry tomatoes, bleu cheese, and a soi-disant truffle vinaigrette. Truffle? Where? And no bacon, either. The only point to wedge salad is bacon. From now on, if I get the craving, I’ll make my own.
“Daddy Warbucks” is the menu’s name for Oysters Rockefeller. The big, tender whole bivalves did have bacon — which plays no part in the traditional recipe — along with Parmesan-dusted panko crumbs, spinach, and tomato (which all of us found too acidic and alien to the dish). We loved the oysters’ tenderness, the lightness of the panko topping — but found that topping too dry. Where’s the goop? (And where’s the Herbsaint?) The original fin de siècle invention of Jean Alciatore of NOLA’s Antoine’s Restaurant (using Pernod from France, since Louisiana’s homegrown Herbsaint wasn’t invented yet) didn’t include such frequent modern elaborations as mornaise or Hollandaise sauce. But at Antoine’s, the greens (minced parsley, scallions, chervil, and other fresh herbs rather than spinach) included an unconscionable amount of butter, enough to turn the minced veggies into a rich sauce. With Rockefeller, skinny won’t do: that’s why it’s called “Rockefeller” — not just for the green of that rich guy’s money but for the wealth of dairy fat. A little more butter or a shot of cream (and hold the tomatoes) and this might make it. You don’t need bacon, but really, ya gotta have goop.
By now, we’d finished our cocktails and were sipping a Central Coast Rousanne named “Writer’s Block” (my chronic ailment). It had a beautiful label but was too sweet for our palates and needed more chilling — you want to drink this seriously cold. Although Rousanne is a close relative of Viognier, a better choice might have been the more familiar, dry-but-fruity Iron Horse Viognier from Monterey. For our entrées, a leap of faith toward Jade Mountain Syrah from Lake County brought a bold, complex, mouth-filling red more reminiscent of Syrah-rich Hermitage than generic Rhones or their California imitators. Mark, perpetual designated driver for this posse squadron, drinks sparingly and only when the wine tastes great and complements the food; he thoroughly enjoyed this bottling, which compensated his palate for maintaining its virginity until then.
Forging ahead into entrées, cheapest but least was a buffalo burger with the standard trimmings, ordered rare, accompanied by fine house-made potato chips. Bison is lean, like most game meats (except bear, beaver, manicou, and nutria). With less fat than chicken breast (and no trichina spores to kill as in wild boar or bear meat), it’s gotta be really rare when cooked on dry heat or it dries out. And it did. Alternatively, the beefburgers here are 100 percent Certified Black Angus — not generic supermarket Angus but a pedigreed breed equivalent to USDA Top Choice. It can’t get that designation if it’s mixed with anonymous junk meats, so it’d likely be safe at medium-rare, and I’d even trust it fully rare, if the burgermeister can learn to handle that.
“Down Home” barbecued baby back ribs aren’t really “Q” because they haven’t been smoked. They’ve evidently been moist-cooked (braised) and then swathed with a sweet whiskey BBQ sauce and caramelized in the wood-burning oven. They’re tender and tasty and come with slim, crisp “American Fries” and assorted roasted vegetables, some still too firm. (Hey, chef Tim: yams are in season now. How about yam fries with this?)
“Mississippi Sound” offers sweet, tender Gulf shrimp served over spaghettini in a variation of Neapolitan pasta puttanesca, with garlic, capers, Kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and a touch of chili. “It’s okay, but I think it might be better in cream sauce,” said Mark. “Everything’s better in cream sauce,” said Ben.
So, excuse me a minute while I whisper another suggestion into the ear of a chef whose talent I obviously respect. Puttanesca, folklorically, was quick-cooked on braziers on the streets of Naples by ladies of the evening — hence its name, “whore-style.” You rarely find it in American Italian restaurants; I’ve never encountered it in Louisiana. I don’t think it flatters shrimps of this quality, but they’d sparkle like gems in a real NOLA-style spicy Creole cream sauce over pasta — an incredibly easy, luscious restaurant entrée. (See my favorite version of the recipe below this column on the website. My friend, chef Stanley Jackson, formerly of Commander’s Palace, made it at the fabulous but short-lived Lombard’s Creole Restaurant in Oakland. I volunteered as kitchen-flunky for the grand opening; in exchange, he gave me the recipe to publish at will.)
A dish called “Chinatown” offers Asian-style marinated skirt steak over spinach with a couple of huge onion rings. “I love the subtlety of this marinade,” said Mark. “I was afraid it would be heavy with soy, like teriyaki.” “Hey, chef’s Chinese, not Japanese,” I reminded him. “I love Japanese food, too, but Chinese is every New Yorker’s down-home comfort food.” (Nonetheless, I think the skirt steak could use some pounding to tenderize it.) “Taste these terrific onion rings!” said Lynne, a skinny lover of things fried. The puffy rounds were coated with a light batter shot through with assertive spices that none of us could pin down.
We couldn’t possibly have eaten dessert. And so we ate two, with not a crumb left over to take home for breakfast. A tangy buttermilk panna cotta (a sort of gelatin-custard) was delicious, if too firm and bouncy, compared to the greatest trembly versions; alongside came a supernumerary fried donut hole mini-pastry. Even better was dulce de leche cheesecake. “Pure New York,” said Ben, world-traveling airline stew. “Dense and rich, like at Junior’s.” Our waitress recommended the “San Diego,” a Snickers-Oreo ice cream pie, evidently a treat for those who love their sweets really sweet. (Maybe next time. Maybe never.) My espresso, however, was mediocre and served lukewarm.
“This is a great new idea,” said Lynne. “Sports pubs usually have awful food.” “Ever eat at Seau’s?” I asked her, citing the local ultimate of the genre. “Yeah. Yuck,” she answered. “But this place just changes the whole equation.” An even nicer shock was our modest bill. “Omigod, that’s all?” I squealed, considering the sub-$200 tab for three cocktails, two serious wines, and ten dishes (of which even the worst were better than anything Trophy’s ever dreamed of). And all in an ambiance where whatever you’re already wearing is good enough, and in a space so capacious you probably don’t even have to reserve, except on serious football days. At long last, we have a place that both Tin Forkers and Swedish-Stainless Spooners can enjoy equally. I guess that’s what “All American” means.