Children crazed by the song's energy race around the room. A wet-eyed toddler begs to be carried closer to the band. A woman stops clapping to squeeze a mouthful of Breaux Bridge boudin from its casing. The venue: Ye Olde College Inn. The occasion: Zyde-Cajun breakfast.
John Blancher, the proprietor of Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, purchased College Inn from longtime owner Emile Rufin last February. Given that the most minute tweak to tradition can throw old-timers and New Orleans purists into a tailspin, some of them probably believe that the restaurant has since gone to pot. But with the musical breakfasts, Blancher instituted a change that the atmospheric but elderly restaurant craved -- a rejuvenation, not a renovation; fresh energy, not a newfangled gimmick.
The Zyde-Cajun breakfasts feel, and somewhat taste, as though they could have existed here all along. The music is a fitting soundtrack for whopping portions of beef grillades pooling over cheese grits in a peppery, coffee-dark roux gravy. It would be perfect for the strawberry-topped Ponchatoula Pancakes, too, if only the gigantic but lackluster cakes tasted from-scratch. Coffee is aggressively all-you-can-drink, and if you fail to fend off the pourers, you'll be bopping like a bubblegum pop princess before your omelette needs flipping.
Another newly instituted, seasonal ritual borrows from a regional practice: Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday crawfish boils. Driving down Carrollton Avenue, you can smell the sharp, aromatic boiling vapors as they swell from a silver rig on the front sidewalk. One evening when a friend and I split six pounds, a waiter forewarned that the "mudbugs" were "big but mild." They were also slightly overcooked and softer than ideal, but we tolerated the transgression in appreciation for hot crawfish served alongside cold Abita tipped into pony glasses.
Just as Rock 'n' Bowl is pretty much the spitting image of the poverty-stricken bowling center Blancher bought in 1988, College Inn is, in appearance, the same old warhorse Rufin ran. The main dining room is a gallery for photographs that seem to have been shot before the invention of focus, the brown tile floor still looks dirty when freshly mopped, and the varnished chairs are rubbed to raw wood in spots.
Despite the addition of an "Atkins Friendly" catfish plate, and the exclusion of grandmotherly love from most side dishes -- where's the macaroni, or the yellow squash with ham? -- the kitchen upholds most of its signature moves, too. Caramel cup custard is still luxurious, and Thousand Island-orange shrimp remoulade maintains its horseradish kick. Cooks still put out dynamite fried food -- tender breaded veal cutlets, flaky onion rings, tightly battered shrimp, oysters and catfish cooked through but still moist -- and they still undercut it all by under-seasoning. Trying to make salt adhere to perfectly greaseless fried foods was frustrating in the Rufin era, and it's frustrating now. The old-timers and purists must love this consistency.
A selection of good food wines is the most modern and up-market addition. An obsolete wooden phone booth is now the acting wine cellar, and Wine Spectator magazines cover a coffee table in the barroom. A killer dinner deal includes two courses and a bottle of Australian Rothbury Estate for $19.95 or $24.95, depending upon the day. College Inn's younger staff is catching on. "I'm supposed to tell you that the Merlot goes great with the crabcake salad," one waitress repeated. And it did: The wine's black pepper and dark berry qualities harmonized with the iron-y spinach, dried cranberries and toasted pecans; a rich, croquette-like crabcake, crusty outside and creamy inside, kept the salad's Dijon vinaigrette from sparring with the wine's acidity.
Merlot also flatters the turkey-andouille gumbo, not that it needs help. Turkey fat gives the thin, dark broth its satiny veneer and full-bodied yowl, while great hunks of turkey meat make it a one-mug meal.
My favorite College Inn order goes like this: one coarse but creamy textured fried hamburger on a squishy white bun; a side of fresh, potato-meaty fries; and a nectar cream soda, pinker than a Mary Kay Cadillac. This self-designed happy meal hasn't changed a wink since the sale.
Admittedly, other things, small things, things that aim at progress, have. Rufin, who still frequents the bar, was able to sell his family dinosaur to a visionary businessman because it had real value: a solid kitchen, 70 years of momentum and a city that loved it. Blancher's extended family runs the neighborhood restaurant now; whatever traditions they may topple along the way, what's crucial is that they're keeping the "olde" close at heart.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The new family tradition at YE OLD COLLEGE INN features the Blanchers: John, Johnny, Deborah and little Piper (Johnny's son).