Antoine's is the oldest of the old-line French Creole restaurants — establishments renowned for their protective embrace of this city's indigenous grand cuisine and for their stiff resistance to change. Yet few other New Orleans restaurants have seen more change lately.
Antoine's remains essentially Antoine's, an iconic, irreplaceable if often exasperating restaurant that is simultaneously a tourist attraction and a clubhouse for the intensely local ranks of Carnival royalty. But Rick Blount, Antoine's CEO and the great-great-grandson of Antoine Alciatore, the Frenchman who founded the place in 1840, is striving to make it more relevant and accessible to a broader customer base. The first foray was the addition of Sunday brunch in 2006, and more changes have followed.
Last year, the restaurant converted a dining room into the Hermes Bar, a handsome, upscale saloon with bands scheduled on weekend nights and a menu including such surprisingly delicious creations as a fried shrimp Reuben. In March came Antoine's Annex, a counter service cafe for sandwiches, coffee and Angelo Brocato's gelato. In the main restaurant, the wine list has been rebuilt since Hurricane Katrina with less age but greater variety. There are three-course lunch specials, monthly wine tastings and even a Facebook page.
Antoine's famously arcane menu was also culled since Katrina. This effort may have boosted efficiency in the kitchen, but unfortunately, Antoine's remains frustratingly inconsistent on the plate. Oysters Rockefeller and Bienville are usually good, as are escargot and shrimp remoulade. But for entrees, even my old standbys of trout or pompano under enormous lumps of crabmeat have proven unreliable. The pompano Pontchartrain was sublime simplicity one night, though another day, the fish was so dry not even the buttered crabmeat could help. Steak is relatively safe, but at $40, a filet mignon should be more than just a haven from flabby sauces and overcooked chicken.
With more satisfying cuisine so readily available around town, including in the old-line Creole style, I can't recommend Antoine's on its cooking alone. Under some circumstances that might rule out a restaurant altogether. Yet there still is something authentically alluring here. While conventional wisdom has long emphasized the need to "know how to order" at Antoine's, I think I've found my own way to get the most from a visit, culinary consistency notwithstanding. First, dress up, even though you may now see grown men wearing shorts here. Second, take a tour around this indoor campus of a restaurant, examining the museum-quality displays throughout its chambers and passages, even if you've done it all before. Most of all, plan a visit as a cultural outing, and if the outing ends with dancing at the Hermes Bar, all the better. There will never be another Antoine's, though now it seems we have new ways to experience it.