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Dining Under the Rising Sun

Annika Mengisen

05/14/07 - 11:38 AM EDT
Galatoire's Imre Szalai
Indoctrinated with Manhattan's tight-lipped transportation etiquette, it came as a pleasant shock when the woman next to me on a plane to New Orleans struck up a conversation.

Her name was Debi Trichel and she was headed to New Orleans for an annual meeting of friends, but mostly for the illustrious famed cuisine. "Think of the crawfish," she said to calm my pretakeoff jitters.

A few days later, sitting in Ralph's on the Park and enjoying a Sunday dinner to the tune of jazz and Dixieland, I realized what she meant.

Sultry green light, reflecting from the park's Spanish moss, came through the windows as I dug into my Pontchatoula strawberry panna cotta, an Italian custard paired up with Louisiana strawberries and a balsamic reduction.

My only regret was not having ordered my dining partner's house-baked creamy cheesecake lollipops -- complete with wooden stems -- as well.

There's no room for culinary classicism in a city where food is king. Whether beignets (a French take on doughnuts) and cafe au lait (coffee with chicory) from Cafe du Monde , or muffulettas (sandwiches of Sicilian bread, marinated olives, meats and cheeses) -- which I dare say rival a New York slice -- all cuisine in New Orleans is enjoyed equally.

"People who come to New Orleans come to eat," says Ralph's executive chef, Gus Martin.

Ralph's on the Park, voted Best Restaurant Post-Katrina by the readers of local New Orleans paper City Business , and Galatoire's , which calls itself the grand dame of New Orleans' old-line restaurants, are two serious staples of the city's cuisine.

Steeped in History

Part of New Orleans' epicurean equality comes from long-standing traditions that blend unlikely continents and people.

Martin, for instance, has a 25-year history working for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group , the family business that runs nine New Orleans-style restaurants in the city, including Ralph's on the Park.

One of Ralph's historic wall murals depicts a time before Ralph Brennan, when The Ball of Two Well Known Gentlemen was hosted there and the building was a place for "fancy ladies and society gentlemen" to mingle.

While you don't see society ladies around here anymore, locals will still come in and have a glass of bourbon at the bar to a backdrop of live piano music.

Over a century old, Galatoire's, a traditional French bistro-style restaurant, is still owned by the Galatoire family. While jackets are required for men, the restaurant has always maintained a joyous, relaxed atmosphere and presents itself as "a place where time and the outside world pleasantly fade from consciousness."

Almost as famous as Galatoire's food are its waiters, who become like family to customers. Some guests and their families have been served by the same waiter for decades, and the restaurant currently employs two sets of father and son waiters.

"All customers are my favorite," says Imre Szalai, 64, who kissed my hand upon meeting me and left me completely at ease with his heartfelt smile.

Forty-two years ago, Szalai came to the U.S. from Hungary not speaking a word of English, started working at Galatoire's and has never wanted to leave. By now he knows exactly what his customers like, including the "soup du jour" he makes up for a certain guest with a proclivity for vodka and Bombay Sapphire. "Whenever guests ask for you, that's a good feeling," says Szalai.

Creole-Cajun Fusion

Creole food, explains Martin, comes from a blend of French and African influences and evolved when local Creoles started cooking for wealthy French settlers, who desired more butter and cream.

When the Cajun people came down from Canada, they brought the trinity of celery, pepper and onions -- the base of New Orleans gumbos, soups and sauces. Creole and Cajun tastes have blended over the years, and today chefs like Martin experiment with what he terms contemporary Creole, which is lighter than traditional Creole.

If you want heavy creams and butters, the older classical restaurants do those well, says Martin. " Ralph's is for people who want the great flavors of our region but want to lighten it up a little."

Still, cautions Martin, messing with certain classic dishes like oysters Rockefeller or grillades and grits is the equivalent of culinary sacrilege.

Galatoire's French Creole recipes, most of which were handed down orally, haven't changed much, says executive chef Brian Landry. The restaurant's famous dishes, like shrimp remoulade, remain as much of a hit for guests like rock band U2 as they did for Harpo Marx.

"New Orleans is a melting pot of so many different cultures that it's so much fun to experiment and do different things," says Martin, who customizes dishes for guests like crescent oyster with crystal butter. "When I cook, it comes from my heart."

Martin's biggest influence was his grandmother, whom he made scrambled eggs with when he was a child. The eggs, like most of the food he grew up with, came from local farmers or his family's own backyard.

Like Martin's grandmother, most New Orleans chefs make it a priority to build good rapport with local purveyors. "When I was a kid, farmer's markets were huge," says Martin. Now due to the markets' waning popularity, chefs have to look elsewhere.

"You build relationships with small farmers and seafood purveyors," says Martin, and "get the superior product that they specialize in." So if you're eating a dish topped with strawberries, chances are they're from Mrs. Linda, who Martin says grows the freshest Louisiana strawberries. As a rule, if it's not in season and fresh, they don't serve it.

Weathering the Storm

Ralph's continued to uphold its slogan "For locals, by locals," throughout the hardship of the past two years. With very little wind or water damage, the restaurant opened two weeks after Katrina and served as inspiration as well as a meeting place for local customers and other restaurateurs.

Galatoire's was also lucky to have retained 80% of its staff, which Landry attributes to the excellent working atmosphere.

But "Katrina was the biggest catastrophe in U.S. history," says Martin, and although the restaurant industry is coming back, it's not as fast as expected. Ralph's is doing a lot of weddings and parties, but a big part of its clientele is just not there anymore. The New Orleans Jazz Fest is one of the busiest times for the restaurant, as the event is held in the park across the street.

Still, not enough positive press about New Orleans in general and understaffing remain the two biggest problems for New Orleans' restaurants. But the fact that people like Debi Trichel make an annual dining pilgrimage to the unique city proves that despite hardship, New Orleans' outstanding culinary reputation remains unsullied.



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