Wednesday, June 13, 2012.
The Newspaper Cutback. Disagreeable Restaurant.
The Times-Picayune's lead story today was the latest in a spate of the strangest reportage I've read in a credible newspaper in a long time.
It started three weeks ago with the surprise announcement of the end of daily newspaper publication in favor of three a week, with a website filling the gaps. Today's installment told how many jobs will be lost--over 200, eighty-four of whom will be lost on the editorial side of the paper. That's almost half the reporting and writing staff! How does that jibe with the promise--repeated in the Thursday paper by editor-in-chef Jim Amoss--that the journalistic product will not be compromised? Sounds like whistling in the dark, to me.
Among the most surprising layoff is that of Brett Anderson, who has been the T-P's restaurant critic for the past ten years. I've never met Brett, and I don't know much about him other than the twenty or so reviews he has written during each of the past few years. He's one of the lucky ones: he has another gig ready to go at Harvard next year.
In wonder if he will have a successor. The T-P has never seemed to consider restaurant writing especially important. Several times in the past, gaps measurable in months or even years occurred between critics. That wouldn't happen in the sports, business or even religion departments.
I could understand this from the Des Moines Register. But New Orleans is one of the world's great food cities, and deserves more than the part-time coverage the newspaper has given us. Especially since Katrina, a time when more new restaurants opened that at any equal time in the city's history.
The weather was lovely at the end of the radio show, with a cool (relatively speaking; it was in the eighties) breeze blowing through downtown. It seemed the perfect day to look in on a restaurant about which I've had a number of reports over the past few years.
The Crazy Lobster is on the old Spanish Plaza at the foot of Canal Street, between the Riverwalk and the Algiers Ferry landing. It is close enough to the riverbank that you can see the water, as well as the boat traffic. Most of the seating is outside. Dressed as I was, I was hoping for the inside dining room, but its doors were open, air conditioning was not palpable, and all the tables in there were full.
So I sat on a molded plastic chair at a faux-marble table. My heart dropped when I opened the menu. I know a tourist restaurant menu when I see it, and I was looking at one. All the local cliches where there. Cliches can be good. I love red beans, gumbo, and poor boys. But when it's accompanied by the overuse of the words "Creole" and "Cajun," and when fried catfish or shrimp platters are over $20, you know who the target customer is.
However, the same thing seems to have happened to such restaurants as did to wine about twenty years ago. When the technology developed in California for growing and making reliably good wine was employed in, say, the less-famous winegrowing areas of Italy, all of a sudden we started getting drinkable wine from infamous grapes.
Twenty-five years ago, tourist traps were really bad. Bad food, bad service, bad prices. It has been a long time since I ran into anything like that, even on Bourbon Street--where the worst examples still thrive, but are so obvious that I leave them alone.
I decided to stick this ordeal out and started with--what else?--char-broiled oysters. Interesting wrinkle here: they come in four flavors, none of which is Drago's. I had the Cajun style, which uses a hot sauce butter. The oysters were hot but not overcooked, and while the sauce will not start a trend it was edible. I also liked the Greek style, which included herbs and feta cheese.
The primary discussion in the vicinity of my table concerned the house specialty: steamed or boiled seafood buckets. Or, more exactly, the price of same. A bucket for two contains two lobsters, a pound of snow crab, a pound of Dungeness crab, and (to add at least one local item) boiled shrimp. This is $91. An enhancement including Alaska king crab runs that up to $121. When the waiter announced this to the table next to mine, the woman audibly gasped and the man started laughing.
Today is National Lobster Day (one of the reasons I came here). But I don't like lobster enough to countenance those prices (or the $26 for just a lobster). And I don't like snow crab or king crab, and only eat Dungeness when I'm in San Francisco. And I was looking for a fast escape after the iced tea came in a go-cup. One so big and flimsy that you couldn't pick it up without the sides squeezing in and the tea level rising to nearly the lip. When the oysters came out, the waiter offered me an equally insulting plastic oyster fork.
So I got the gumbo. It wasn't bad, although those who don't like tomato in gumbo would hate this version. It contained more tomato than I've found in a gumbo recipe in a long time. Shrimp was the main seafood; I found a few oysters, and some shreds of crabmeat. For ten dollars it was a filling entree.
Dessert was a mammoth wedge of bread pudding with one of those sauces with so much sugar that it's still gritty. That's a popular way of making bread pudding, but not one I especially like. I ate about third and gave up.
So the food was borderline, the premises were acceptable, the server was friendly and effective. I wouldn't pay the bucket prices, so I was safe from being ripped off. Yet I found this an unpleasant meal. I can't stand to see people coming to New Orleans and using their money and time on something like this, when so many better restaurants are nearby.
Crazy Lobster. CBD: 1 Poydras (riverfront). 504-569-3380.
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