Thursday, May 3, 2012.
I warned Mary Ann months ago that publishing a book involves labors that continue expanding long after one is completely sick of the book and everything about it. Her current frustration involves a press release. Most of her problems come from having never done this sort of thing before. Learning curves accompany almost everything we do, natural talents not as many.
She called me after the radio show to let me know that Mary Leigh was probably available for dinner. Our daughter, she said, had just rolled out of bed. At six in the evening? Ah, but it's exam time, when the holiness of sleep is often usurped.
ML and I went to High Hat, one of the many restaurants that unexpectedly erupted in the old Freret Street commercial district in the past couple of years. We arrived early enough to beat the much larger crowd that showed up at dusk. High Hat, being new and in harmony with the trends, could be expected to draw a good crowd of Jazz festival visitors.
High Hat took over the space where the hallowed Bill Long's Bakery operated for fifty years. Other than the bar and a semi-open kitchen, the place is immediately recognizable to old Bill Long customers. The big windows and earth-shade tile floors bring a chill of nostalgia. Yes, a chill: the bakery closed after second-generation owner Bill Long Jr. was murdered in his shop.
But that's behind us, Katrina having washed the bad stuff in the neighborhood largely away, allowing all sorts of cool new establishments to rebuild the historic stretch between Napoleon and Jefferson Avenues.
We got a good look at one of the most celebrated of those en route to High Hat. Dat Dog just moved from its totally inadequate shed to a converted gas station across the street. That gives it many more tables, under the canopy that covered the old gas pumps. The line for the made-to-order hot dogs--the best ever served in New Orleans--is longer than ever.
Back to High Hat. Co-owner Chip Apperson lived in Memphis a long time, and was always intrigued by the name of Cecil's Hi-Hat Lounge, a seedy-looking bar there. When he and Chef Adolfo Garcia partnered on this place last year, Chip finally got to use the name. On a trip back to Memphis, he saw the old place was being torn down. He bought the sign and hung it above the bar. It was only then that he noticed that the old joint was called "Hi-Hat," not "High Hat" as was on his restaurant's permits and marquee. Too late to do anything about it now.
The Memphis connection made the menu fall into place. My first impression was that it was an affectation. But no--this really is the kind of menu you'd find a large circle of territory around Memphis. Southern food. However, it's been brought a long way toward present local restaurant conventions, and is therefore a lot better than the typical street corner café in Tennessee and Mississippi.
We started with two soups. The gumbo ya-ya was a dense, spicy, very dark bowlful in the tradition of the soup of the same name at Mr. B's. Mary Leigh has become a gumbo fan, and she liked this--although she thought it a little too spicy.
My soup was a milk stew of oysters and fennel--a natural pairing. It was full of big, plumped-up oysters. The fennel part was played by the fronds on the top of a bunch of the vegetable. You don't see that part used very much. I wonder what they do with the bulbs? Good soup, anyway.
Next, the never-before-attempted hybrid of a wedge salad and shrimp remoulade. Not a bad idea, actually. The shrimp were very large for a remoulade (maybe a click bigger than optimal), and there were plenty of them for an eight-dollar entree salad. The remoulade sauce was the red kind, made with a lot of red pepper. It was peppery enough to make my scalp break into a sweat--an effect I like. (I keep thinking it might reverse my balding.)
Mary Leigh made an entree out of an individually-baked macaroni and cheese, which suited her perfectly. She got a side of cornbread: not as impressive. It reminded me of the very dry kind I make intentionally as the first ingredient in cornbread dressing for a turkey.
Before me was the specialty of the house, fried catfish. The fillets were small (a good thing), lightly coated with cornmeal (ditto), and nicely if not brilliantly fried. They came out atop a pile of hand-cut fries. Both major parts of the dish were adversely affected by their being piled on one another. The resultant steam takes all the crispness out of both fish and spuds. Joining those two was finely-cut cole slaw, and very good hush puppies that actually had flavor beyond that of cornmeal. At $12, this was a good platter.
Strawberry pie looked as if it had been baked by someone who was doing it for the first time. Tasted okay, but it won't linger in my memory.
It's been a long time since I've seen a service staff so well suited to a restaurant. Women who are a shade past being routinely called young are friendly and efficient, and could fit into a tableau set in 1954 New Orleans. Or in 2012 Sardis, Mississippi. The whole restaurant has that feeling, in fact.
It is also very noisy in here when the place fills up. Which it did, by about eight o'clock.
Mary Leigh, who turns twenty next week, has glad news. A fellow student has been discovered who likes to watch hockey games with her and have long, funny conversations. That's all I am allowed to say, and I may already have said too much.
High Hat Cafe. Uptown: 4500 Freret St. 504-754-1336.
It's over three years since a day was missed in the Dining Diary. To browse through all of the entries since 2008, go here.
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