On Saturday, Aug. 27, with Hurricane Katrina still an uncertain menace in the Gulf, Steve Schwarz presided over a half-empty dining room of anxious customers and employees at Mat & Naddie's, where all conversation was on the pending decision to evacuate or stay. Schwarz, chef and co-owner at the Riverbend restaurant, quipped that people should savor the meal because it might be the last night Mat & Naddie's would be open.
The remark proved prophetic. Closed for more than eight months, the restaurant finally got back in business in mid-May. But that Saturday still stands as the last night it was open. Known for its fine dinners and wine selection during antediluvian days, Mat & Naddie's is open now only for lunch and in a format Schwarz would have considered unthinkable in the age of innocence before Katrina: a bargain-priced, all-you-can-eat buffet.
"I have a hard time even saying the word 'buffet,' it really has a bad connotation, but that's not what we're doing here," he says. "We had to rethink everything we were doing. We asked ourselves 'What's needed here now?'"
Schwarz didn't see much competition for a lunch that could be both quick and satisfying to discerning palates, and the limited service requirements of a buffet presented an attractive solution to the restaurant's severe staffing shortage.
"Our catering business has been going well since we started it again in December, so we decided to make the lunch like one of our catered parties," says Schwarz.
Admission to this weekday, lunchtime party is $10. Throughout the lunch, cooks continuously march out of the kitchen with small bowls of salad, tureens of soup and pastas, platters of grilled vegetables, meats, fish, cheese and quiches. The Creole shrimp salad -- tender, tangy and perfect -- is a mainstay, as is the beet and bleu cheese salad. Most of the other offerings are up to whatever the kitchen has on hand and what the cooks feel like putting together.
"The only way this is going to work is if people come here once a week instead of going to McDonald's or Denny's. That's why we priced it the way we did. The only way we can do this is if we pack the place," Schwarz says.
After a slow start, the lunch appears to be catching on. The appeal is abetted by the ambiance of the dining room, which has been renovated since the hurricane sent a giant elm crashing through its roof. During the lunch hours, the natural light through the restaurant's cottage windows paints the colorful dining room in soft hues. Views of the green roll of the river levee seem to surround the place and add a verdant, country feel, with the smokestacks of enormous freighters plying the river virtually across the street.
"Everyone knows we all have to try to adapt to the situation here now, and I'm not even sure this is the right thing, but we have to be very pragmatic and see what works," Schwarz says.
Across town, in the Central Business District, chef Rene Bajeux also chose weekday lunches as the stage for the return of his Rene Bistrot in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel. Like the scene at Mat & Naddie's, however, it is hardly business as usual. For starters, the badly damaged restaurant is still being rebuilt, so meals are served not in the bistro's dining room but in the hotel lobby, where the restaurant's receptionist is commonly mistaken for the hotel check-in clerk. The three-course, table d'h#246;te style lunch costs $20 and, like Schwarz's buffet, it is a gourmet's bargain.
The hotel initially asked Bajeux to stick to food preparation for room service and banquets. But the chef says he just couldn't wait to get back to cooking the cuisine of his native France, so he worked out the lunchtime service with hotel management.
"We opened at the end of April, but we didn't tell anybody," says Bajeux. "We didn't know what to expect or what we could handle. But right away, just the two of us in the kitchen were doing 55 [customers] just for lunch.
"There's energy and it's great. I love it. Our waiters, there's just two of them, too, and they're running around like the rabbit. It's not the same as before, of course, but the passion is here."
Like countless other businesses rebuilding since the storm, Rene Bistrot is using the downtime for a redesign. The dining room will have the same sleek, contemporary style as before, but there will be more booths, the bar will be reconfigured to open up the restaurant's front area, and there will be two private dining rooms. There will also be a chef's table that guests can book for custom-crafted meals in Bajeux's kitchen.
If the current lunch is any indication of the excellence to expect when the restaurant fully reopens, that chef's table may be a hard reservation. The menu changes daily but usually offers a choice of five appetizers, five entrees and two dessert selections, plus a dozen wines. Recent lunches have seen dishes like beautifully poached oysters with fragrant fennel and spinach over a pastry tart; a soft-shell crab -- fried and bursting with moistness -- artfully arranged on a potato and prosciutto hash with red pepper coulis; and a dish of sauted sweetbreads with a white bean ragout and porcini oil.
"I come in every morning, call the fish mongers, work the phones, see what's out there, and I cook what I like," says Bajeux. "I'm discovering why I'll never be a food and beverage director. All I want to do is be in the kitchen."
Both Mat & Naddie's and Rene Bistrot expect to open for dinner again some time in September.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Mat & Naddie's has reopened with buffet lunch service.