by Edward J. Branley
No, I’m not Francis Parkinson Keyes, but Antoine’s is probably my favorite New Orleans restaurant. My experiences with Antoine’s go back twenty years. Our most recent visit to Antoine’s for dinner was on my wife’s birthday, which this year was two Saturdays before Mardi Gras, the night of the Sparta parade downtown. Carnival time is one of the best times of the year to dine at Antoine’s, because of the festive atmosphere and the rich Carnival tradition the restaurant has.
We made our reservations for 7:30pm, with Richard Moreland. We would have used my late father-in-law’s waiter, but he retired last year, so we had to try someone new. I had recommended Antoine’s to a couple via e-mail earlier this year, and Richard took good care of them, so it made sense to give him a try. He was really fascinated by the roundabout way we got his name. Antoine’s goes hi-tech. We walked in the front door rather than the side door that regulars use to bypass the main dining room, since we didn’t know Richard by sight. We were immediately shown to our table in the Back Dining Room, a nice table-for-two on the wall. There were several large groups in the Back Dining Room that evening, and all of the downstairs private rooms were occupied with either private parties or as extensions to the two main rooms. It was a busy night.
Richard immediately came to us after we were seated. We exchanged greetings and got down to the business of food by consulting the dinner menu, while Richard brought us some cocktails (scotch for me, a glass of house Chardonnay for Helen). Figuring out Antoine’s menu can be a daunting challenge to the uninitiated, because it is in French and because there are so many dishes from which to choose. Regulars know to stick to the specialties of the house to get the best out of the kitchen, which helps narrow your focus. While we were looking over the menu and enjoying our drinks, Richard brought out an order of Pommes de Terre Soufflees--Souffleed Potatoes. These are finger-size slices of potato that are double-fried so that they puff up like little pillows. They make great finger food while you’re reading. These goodies are so popular that your waiter just brings them out (you have to pay for them, of course) to your table. While licking the salt off of my fingers, I decided on Huitres en coquille a la Rockefeller, Gombo Creole, and Poulet sauce Rochambeau. Richard suggested the asparagus with hollandaise for a vegetable, which sounded good for me. Helen ordered Crevettes remoulade and Filet de boeuf sauce marchand de vin. He headed off to the kitchen while our assistant waiter brought out some good, hot Gendusa’s french bread.
It’s possible to make an entire meal out of Antoine’s appetizers and feel like you’ve really experienced some of the finest food in New Orleans. My six Oysters Rockefeller were excellent. Jules Alciatore (Antoine’s son) invented this dish in 1899. Unlike many of the copies, the original version of this dish uses green onions rather than spinach. Helen’s shrimp were cold, firm and spicy, with a tart, not-too-horseradishy remoulade sauce. My father-in-law always used to say that the best way to enjoy Antoine’s was to go with a minimum of a group of four, so you can order several four-six appetizers and pass them around.
The timing of courses at Antoine’s is a precise science. You don’t realize it while you’re dining, but there’s a conspiracy going on between your waiter, his assistant, and the bus boys to monitor your progress. Waiters at Antoine’s are sort of like corporate department heads, supervising their operations staffs. When you’re finished, someone picks up the plates and lets the waiter know that you’re ready for the next course, which he then brings out from the kitchen. This was how it worked all through our meal. I slurped up my oysters fairly quickly, so Richard brought my gumbo while Helen finished her shrimp. The gumbo was a seafood-okra one, with the darkest roux I’ve seen in a long time. We’re talking almost black here. It was full of shrimp, a couple of oysters, and the okra really made it thick. It almost didn’t need the rice.
In short order upon my finishing of the gumbo, the main course appeared. Helen’s filet was cooked just the way she wanted it, medium well. This is an accomplishment, because many restaurants don’t fully cook a thick steak the way a well-done-type diner wants it. Personally, I prefer my steaks rare, so it’s not a problem for me, but we’ve been disappointed at several places because Helen likes her meat cooked through. Antoine’s nailed it on the head. Their marchand de vin sauce is exquisite--solid, homemade stock, good red wine, lots of green onions and mushrooms. They give you lots of it, too, all the better to sop up with the french bread. My Chicken Rochambeau was done just as I like my favorite Antoine’s entree. This dish is half a chicken (breast, leg, thigh) which boned, but not skinned. It’s grilled, then served as a layered dish--First a slice of baked ham, then the brown Rochambeau sauce (chicken stock and brown sugar), then the chicken, then a yellow Bearnaise. To me, there’s no better entree that Antoine’s can put on the table. My asparagus were good and fresh--always go with your waiter’s recommendation on these sort of things. They’re not getting a commission for moving something out of the kitchen, so if they say it’s good one evening, believe them. I chose a Graves for the wine (Chateau Smith-Rothschild), which worked out good. It had enough body to stand up to Helen’s filet and sauce, but didn’t overwhelm my chicken. It’s hard to eat everything they offer you and have room for dessert, so be sure to pace yourself, because you don’t want to leave without completing the meal.
After we finished the main course, the table was cleared and Richard scooped up the errant bread crumbs on the table. You don’t get a bread plate in a better New Orleans restaurant; you just break off a piece from the french bread loaf and place it down next to your plate. If the crumbs get spread around, no bother--that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Time for dessert. For a celebratory occasion, the best choice is Antoine’s Baked Alaska. Usually the Baked Alaska is a dessert for two, but they also make a larger version for 6-8 if you have a large group. They don’t flame the dessert here, but decorate it with whipped cream and such. You have to order the dessert when you order your meal, since it takes time to prepare. If you ask, they’ll write something special on it for you in whipped cream, like for a birthday or anniversery, etc. Since it was Helen’s birthday, Richard had "Happy Birthday Helen" written on it, and then produced three candles, lit them, and the staff nearby sang her happy birthday. The Baked Alaska looks like a lot more food than it really is, because the meringue is so fluffy and light. The ice cream and pound cake make up for it, however, since both are homemade and thick. We got to enjoy watching one table nearby us as their waiter prepared Cherries Jubilee, flaming up the brandy and ladling it over cherries and ice cream. Still another table had Cafe Brulot Diabolique, which is another flaming dish, this time a mixture of coffee and brandy. Since we had all of that wonderful Baked Alaska, I settled for a cup of good, strong coffee and chicory.
After dinner, Richard was more than happy to show us around the restaurant a bit. It had been some time since Helen and I had been together to Antoine’s, so she wanted to look around. Every room was occupied (a regular happening around Carnival time), but we still got to peek in them. The party in the Proteus Room had broken up by the time we finished, so we could actually look at the Carnival memorabilia in the display cases. The Rex Room group was still going strong, unfortunately, so we had to settle for just looking in. Upstairs was hectic as well, with a big dinner party going on in the Japanese Room. Still, it was nice to walk around a bit through so much New Orleans history.
After that, it was time to settle up. The tab for dinner, including the wine and tax was around $125. I tipped Richard 20%, which brought the bill up to right around $150. As New Orleans goes, this is high, but it’s possible to keep that a bit more under control by choosing to have wine by the glass, or omit the wine and drinks altogether. Better still, go for lunch, where prices are a good bit less.
Overall, this was a good Antoine’s experience. Helen’s dad Jack was right when he said it’s better to go in a group, though, since you get to try different things, but that’s a small qualification. We left full and quite satisfied.
Read Ed's Review of Lunch at Antoine's
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