Monday, January 02, 2006

Revival, Reopening, and Renewal

My last New Orleans meal prior to Hurricane Katrina was a lunch with my wife and children at K-Paul’s restaurant. I have often revisited that memorable experience during the stress and rebuilding of these last four months. For my first dining experience back in the city I wanted to return to Paul Prudhomme’s mainstay on Chartres Street.

After easily finding a prime parking space, my wife and I began our leisurely walk through the French Quarter. It was the Friday evening before New Year’s Eve and the city was eerily still. We passed a bar, usually loud and packed with tourists, only to find a lone bartender behind the bar and a cocktail waitress— palms in her chin— sitting on the only occupied barstool.

All was quiet on the restaurant front. There seemed to be more police than pedestrians. I commented to my wife that I felt safer than I have ever felt walking the streets of the Crescent City.

We turned at the Saint Louis Cathedral, headed South on Chartres, and were surprised that everything looked the same, though cleaner. As we approached K-Paul’s the sounds of a Zydeco band playing on the sidewalk echoed off of the centuries-old buildings. Chef Paul was greeting guests in front of the restaurant. A routine, I am told, he has been observing every evening since the reopening.

I have often stated that the shrimp creole, jambalaya, and etouffee, produced daily in the K-Paul’s kitchens are the finest examples of those dishes ever created… the gold standard. We began the meal with an appetizer portion of shrimp etouffee and a shrimp Rockefeller dish served on fried green tomatoes. The etouffee was dark, rich, and flavorful, and held up to all previous billing.

When a guy wants to know how the national monetary system works he goes to Alan Greenspan, when he wants to learn how to throw a pass he calls Brett Favre, when he wants to eat the world’s best gumbo, he looks no further than Paul Prudhomme. Our second course was a bowl of chicken and andouille gumbo, and I quickly reminded my self— for the 935 th time— why I love living so close to New Orleans.

As we finished our soup, the members of the Zydeco band, who had now made their way through the front door, began strolling from table to table. I have eaten many a jazz brunch; this was my first Zydeco dinner. Midway through the song, Chef Paul entered the dining room waving a white napkin and leading a conga line of customers. It was a surreal experience. “Only in New Orleans,” my wife commented.

The city felt alive again.

After entrees of expertly prepared blackened tuna and pan-fried drum, we skipped dessert, with hopes of visiting the newly reopened and virtually tourist-free Café Du Monde.

On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, I asked Prudhomme how his life had been impacted since the storm. “We have fed 35,000 relief workers since the storm,” he said, “We were the first tablecloth restaurant to (re)open in the Quarter.”

When I told him that his etouffee and Creole dishes were the finest examples of those dishes I had ever tasted, he replied, “It’s all in the stock.” I then commented on how his stocks were so intense, rich, and deep with flavor. His response was, “they have to be,” the food, like the man— no nonsense.

No one has impacted the nation’s regional cooking scene more than Paul Prudhomme. He is the most underestimated chef in America. He is much more than blackened redfish. Make no mistake, he is still the king. He packs more flavor and boldness into a dish that anyone I know.

Julia Child and James Beard were two of this country’s greatest culinary icons. Sadly, they are gone, which— in my mind— makes Paul Prudhomme America’s greatest living culinary national treasure. He has won countless culinary awards and accolades, lectured around the world, fed heads of state, given tirelessly to charities, written eight cookbooks, and produced six instructional cooking videos, two of which topped the Billboard charts for 53 consecutive weeks.

In these days of image-conscious and cleavage-bearing T.V. chefs, designer foams, elaborate vertical presentations, and salads made with fiddlehead ferns, it is refreshing when a world-class chef sticks to the basics. Prudhomme has the knowledge to prepare any type food he wants. Lucky for us, he stays true to his roots.

While walking past the Saint Louis Cathedral a military Humvee stopped in front of the church and six National Guardsmen stepped out. As we spoke to the soldiers, bells began chiming at the Cathedral. Of all of the times I have been in that area, I have never heard a bell ring. I don’t know if the carillon has always been there, or if the bells have been installed since the storm. Either way the sound was beautiful, signaling the end to a perfect night in the city, and heralding a fresh start with good things to come in the upcoming year.

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