Despite the warnings about service, prices, and experience my first proper meal in New Orleans was at Antoine’s – the oldest continually running family owned restaurant in the United States. Inventors of the Oysters Rockefeller, featuring more rooms than some restaurants have seats, and old school with waiters clad in tuxedos – if nothing else I was going for the experience and the oysters. Making my way in the front door a few minutes before my 2:00pm reservation the restaurant was largely empty – only three tables filled in the brightly lit front room. Greeted promptly by a waiter who did not even inquire as to whether I had a reservation I was led to a table near the front window – at least until I asked of there were any tables available in back. “Oh, sure, one minute” I was told – a quick exchange between two waiters and I was led towards the back – a huge room, elegantly lit, where more than 2/3 of the tables were filled.
Taking my seat I was handed the menu and a wine list. Deferring on the wine and stating tap water (as opposed to bottled) would be adequate my glass was filled and I sat and waited nearly 8 minutes before anyone appeared at my table to discuss the menu or to take my order. Starring at the stained white tablecloth on my table and the photos from the 1800s lining the walls next to me I felt like I was dining in a museum. When my waiter did arrive, a short elderly man who walked with a limp and introduced himself as Sterling, he asked if I had any questions about the wine list and I again explained I’d not be drinking – he then filled my water and disappeared for another 5-10 minutes. Finally returning I placed my order and then stood up to browse the multiple rooms of Antoine’s – none of which were seated but all of which were set up elegantly and full of pictures and history.
Returning to my chair I heard Sterling tell another server to “put the bread on him” – a phrase I’d hear thrice more on my trip to New Orleans. Shortly after this a large loaf of French Bread was brought to my table by an African American server who insisted on calling me “young man” throughout the meal – as this too would be repeated at multiple restaurants during my visit I rather imagine these phrases are something common to the south. Tasting the bread I was impressed by its crisp crust and delicate airy crumb. While the table butter was quite dull and the table could have used multiple crumbing I easily finished the loaf of bread before meals end and was brought another loaf without even requesting it.
Waiting nearly 20 minutes for my first course to arrive I decided to order coffee to go with my food and the “young man” server brought it and kept it filled without hesitation – I rather wish he’d have been my server, actually, as he was taking care of multiple tables and vastly more efficient than Sterling. A thick and nutty coffee with strong hints of chicory atop a somewhat floral base I found Antoine’s coffee to be quite good and the fact that it wasn’t charged for was also excellent, especially since I drank a good 4-5 cups.
When the food finally did begin to arrive things got better – the Oysters Rockefeller absolutely lived up to the hype with 6 plump and juicy oysters swimming in their own briny liquor and topped with a golden bronzed puree of garlic, anise, spinach, bread crumbs, and what I believe may have been parmesan cheese. Hot and bubbling atop a bed of salt rocks I slowly indulged on each oyster and wiped the shells clean with the bread – while I can’t say I’ve tasted every Oysters Rock out there, this one was certainly the best to date.
Following the Rockefeller – another 6 oysters, this time the Oysters Foch. Starring six succulent oysters flash fried in cornmeal breading and served atop toast smeared with a pate of foie gras the dish was topped off with a rich sauce that tasted almost as if it were a hollandaise spiked with tomatoes and vinegar or sherry. Wonderfully crisp and not as briny as the Rockefeller oysters I was quite impressed at how the salty and smooth oysters served to balance the unctuous liver while the sauce added some spice and acidity to the dish.
Following the Oysters I received my main course – not truly a main, but rather a bowl of shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo and a side of soufflé potatoes. Thick and featuring a dark and spicy roux the overall body of the gumbo was actually quite nice – unfortunately the small bowl contained far too little seafood or andouille and far too much overcooked white rice. While certainly decent and better than any gumbo I’ve tasted up north this was definitely the most disappointing gumbo of my trip. The soufflé potatoes – well, to be fair, I guess I just don’t get the appeal. Crispy on the outside and hollow/airy within they were essentially a less salty form of a house-made potato chip and the fact that my wait staff once again disappeared for long stretch and failed to supply me with the béarnaise sauce that I saw other tables enjoying left me largely underwhelmed.
When it came time for dessert I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when I was told (via E-mail when I made the reservation that they never confirmed when I arrived) that they wouldn’t make the Baked Alaska for one – even if I agreed to pay the full price. My disappointment was only because I’d wanted to taste this famous preparation, not particularly because I was at a lack for better options – specifically bread pudding – my favorite genre of dessert and something I’d be consuming frequently on my trip to NOLA. Arriving only a few minutes after I placed the order the cinnamon raisin bread pudding was paired with a large serving of crushed pecans, a dollop of whipped cream, and an ample dose of thick and buttery rum sauce. Amply soaked, perfectly baked through with a spongy yet toothsome texture this is exactly what I expect when I think of classical bread pudding and the dish did not disappoint at all.
Looking back on my trip I have to say that service gaffs aside I really enjoyed my trip to Antoine’s – it a relic of the past and while they certainly aren’t trying to re-invent the wheel they really don’t have to – they invented it in the 1800s. A fan of modern…and even “hypermodern” cuisine (I’d be eating at Alinea only 4 days after Antoine’s) it is comforting to know that there will always be places that stick to their roots and do what is tried and true – though I must say I expect that their service was once better and their competition less excellent. While I can’t say I’d return to Antoine’s solo, I’d definitely consider going back if I was with other first time visitors to New Orleans – I’d request Sterling not be our waiter, they’d get the experience and I’d get the Baked Alaska and some more Oysters Rockefeller.