Last Updated on Thursday, 01 December 2011 08:42
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
Even when Antoine's was at its worst (about ten years ago), it remained an essential restaurant for a lot of New Orleans people. We'd put up with the maddening quirks and inconsistencies just to be there. Particularly around the holidays. Since the hurricane, Antoine's has polished its act so well it's almost hard to believe. A thorough restoration, a new bar, and new special menus are succeeding in attracting people who have not dined there in a long time, or ever. Yet it retains the unique character that endears it to so many people.
Antoine's house specialties are so famous, timeless and numerous that they create a problem. So many of those dishes are now served by so many New Orleans restaurants, down to the neighborhood-cafe level, that some dishes may strike you as ordinary. In some cases, they are. Trout amandine, for example, is probably better at Fury's. But interspersed throughout the menu are inimitable dishes--oysters Foch and Rockefeller, escargots bordelaise, filet mignon Alciatore, chicken Rochambeau, and baked Alaska, to name a few. The restaurant buys top-class raw food stuffs and serves them simply.
Antoine's opened in 1840, not long after the invention of the restaurant business. It's the oldest continuously-operating restaurant in America under the continuous management of the same family, now in its fifth generation. It has always been considered not just a good place to eat, but part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans, particularly at the high-society level. Its history is so colorful and long that it's worth reading about on the restaurant's web site. Hurricane Katrina applied the most difficult stress on the restaurant, coming close to destroying the oldest part of it, and putting its future briefly in question. In the recovery, management of the restaurant unambiguously moved from the Guste family (which had run it since the 1970s) to Yvonne Blount and her son Rick--fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of founder Antoine Alciatore. Rick Blount orchestrated the sweeping restoration--in physical, culinary, and attitudinal ways.
Antoine's rambling premises are so interesting that the waiters spend a lot of time giving tours to their customers. A thorough stroll around the restaurant takes about ten minutes--it's that big, and that packed with memorabilia. The wine cellar may be the single most striking visual in any New Orleans restaurant. The deceptively small, bright front dining room is a charming French-style antique. The main room is a dim, Germanic space whose walls are covered with photos and testimonials. The Hermes Bar was added in 2008--the first bar the restaurant ever had--offers live music and a special light menu, including the utterly unique oysters Foch poor boy.
»Oysters Thermidor (bacon and tomato sauce)
»Oysters Foch (fried, with paté de foie gras on toast and dark, thick Colbert sauce
Escargots Bourguignonne (garlic butter)
»Escargots Bordelaise (red wine and garlic sauce)
»Shrimp remoulade or cocktail
Crawfish or shrimp cardinal (white wine sauce and tomato)
»Crabmeat au gratin
Alligator soup with sherry
Wedge salad with Roquefort
Hearts of palm salad
Asparagus with butter
Carrots with butter
»Alciatore sauce (brown pineapple sauce and béarnaise)
Mushrooms in red wine sauce
»Marchand de Vin (red wine brown sauce)
Demi-bordelaise (garlic butter)
Trout with shrimp or crawfish cardinal
»Trout meuniere or amandine
»Trout or pompano Pontchartrain (grilled, with crabmeat)
Grilled soft shell crabs
»Fried soft shell crabs, meuniere or amandine
Chicken with mushrooms and garlic
»Chicken Rochambeau (grilled, slightly sweet brown sauce, béarnaise, ham)
»Tenderloin beef tips marchand de vin
Delmonico steak with mushrooms demi-bordelaise
Chateaubriand (double filet mignon)
»Pecan and raisin bread pudding
»Meringue glacee sauce chocolat
»Gateau chocolat d’Yvonne
FOR BEST RESULTS
The most important thing to do to get the most enjoyment from Antoine's is to recognize that it is different from other restaurants. It serves an historic cuisine in an historic way. You must meet it halfway, to allow the place to be what it is. If you can't do that, this is not the restaurant for you. People who enjoy Antoine's most are regular customers with a rapport with the restaurant, usually through the agency of a regular waiter. That is not essential, but it is a good thing. Becoming a friend of the restaurant is easier than it once was: the $20 three-course lunches remove almost all risk.
If you want baked Alaska (and you do), be sure to order it at the beginning of the meal, with everything else. Do not attempt to dine at Antoine's when the entire place is packed, as on the weeks before Christmas or Mardi Gras.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
A few aspects of the food here really are atrocities. Someday, Antoine's will stop overcooking fish. The Chateaubriand, at the highest price printed on any local menu, is to be avoided. (Get two filets instead.) As much as I like the bar, the high tables and chairs are all wrong. I wish they'd add some sofas.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency +1
- Service +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine and Bar +2
- Hipness -2
- Local Color +3
- Live music some nights
- Good for business meetings
- Many private rooms
- Open Sunday lunch
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Reservations honored promptly
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Everything about Antoine's relates to traditions, including the restaurant's coverage in this column. Every three years, during the holidays, we check in on the restaurant editorially. While few would claim that dining there brings food, service, or wine in the topmost echelons of the restaurant market, the fact remains that Antoine's is the great-grandfather of all fine dining in New Orleans, a standard candle in the starry restaurant universe, and irreplaceable.
The improvements since Katrina are borderline astonishing. I expect we will see even more of them in the coming years, as the current generation of cooks--many of whom have been there since before the bistro revolution of the late 1970s--give way to younger culinarians with new ways of executing the great cuisine created here over the decades.