There are plenty of upscale restaurants that pride themselves on their burgers. These are places that have big-name chefs and look upon their offerings as cuisine, but maintain the burger both for normal-guy street cred and as an option for the customer who sits down, examines the chef's cuisine and decides to have the $14 burger anyway.
Blue Plate Caf is the inverse of that kind of restaurant. The diner-esque name and the breakfast-and-lunch-only format peg it as the kind of place with a good burger. As it turns out, the burger is better than good here, but Blue Plate really specializes in casual versions of more ambitious fare, like stuffed pork tenderloin, barbecue salmon and pain perdue with brie.
Owner Holly Diliberto (yes, a relative of the legendary, late New Orleans sports broadcaster Buddy D) first opened the restaurant in 2004. A year later, unfortunately, the roof of her Uptown building was torn off and the interior was ruined by Hurricane Katrina. The cafe remained closed for so long that I had tacitly chalked it up as a storm casualty, but it quietly reopened in June after Diliberto rebuilt the interior and had a baby as well. The menu is slightly smaller now, and only one of the original two dining rooms is open, but the revived Blue Plate has essentially the same eclectic, offbeat vibe as before.
A lot of the food is just better and more imaginative than it has to be for a restaurant in this range (most meals cost between $8 and $11). Some of it comes in small touches, like the chopped pecans and croutons made from po-boy bread that are sprinkled on the Caesar salads that come with many of the lunch dishes. Then there's the whole appetizer category.
Having an appetizer at a casual, weekday lunch usually means talking your dining companions into an order of onion rings before the sandwiches show up. That's possible here -- and advisable since the onion rings are very good, lightly battered and crisp -- but you can also get something called the "bello bowl," a mixture of sauted pieces of smoky mushroom with curried cream sauce and planks of dense polenta "fingers," which are not too different from grit cakes.
One of the best dishes on the regular menu is a huge, thickly-sliced portion of stuffed pork tenderloin called "swine divine." Even when it is thoroughly cooked through, the meat stays moist with its filling of spinach, feta and salty black olives and has a crisp ribbon of rendered fat around the edges. An excellent side dish of garlic potatoes is served with this and other lunch entrees. These aren't just flavored by garlic but literally crusted with minced bits of garlic, mellowed by butter and utterly delicious.
Sandwiches all start off with good bread and then go their separate ways toward the conventional and the wild. The "rocky" po-boy, a combination of fried oysters and creamed spinach on buttered bread, seems like the kind of sandwich you might put together from a catered party's leftovers when you thought no one was looking. It's over-the-top rich, but definitely good. The plain old hamburger here is excellent, a victory of restraint and attention to detail that other kitchens often lose in the effort to make their burger somehow unique. The texture and flavor of the patty itself point to freshly ground beef and at 10 ounces it stops just short of being too large. Most important, the bun is up to the task of containing it throughout the meal and it is a crusty, full-bodied, liberally-seeded loaf in its own right, not the poor grocery store standard so frequently used.
Blue Plate Caf offers familiar breakfast fare in the morning, although the menu's more creative combinations are much more fun. The "breakchetta" (think breakfast bruschetta) makes a very light meal, with a small amount of scrambled eggs balanced on toast smeared with goat cheese and dressed with a marinated relish of tomato and basil, plus a "breakfast salad" of fruit, lettuce and a sweet dressing. For quite the opposite experience, try the big, bready crawfish cakes covered in a sauce like remoulade studded with crawfish tails and topped with fried eggs.
The quiche is always excellent thanks to the very rich, satisfying crust the kitchen fills with a changing roster of ingredients, like spinach, cheese and shrimp. The breakfast dish I have particular trouble forgoing, though, is the pain perdu, which has a great, soft texture and a tart blueberry sauce topping and is stuffed with just the right amount of brie. I usually endorse this as a "breakfast appetizer" when I'm with others so I can still sneak in a few bites no matter what else I might try.
Blue Plate Caf is an easy place to bring children, since there is a menu for diners under 10 years old with $4 meals like pancakes with bacon and grilled cheese or a peanut butter sandwich with fries or fruit. Mommy can also have a bloody Mary or mimosa while the youngsters suck down the drink included with the kids meals.
The coffee is pretty bad, but it turns out that isn't an accident. The restaurant is small, and Diliberto says she relies on the kind of table turnover you don't get when customers are enticed to stay and drink cup after cup. So while the coffee may not inspire you to linger, the food will likely draw you back again and again, even if you need to hit one of the nearby Magazine Street coffeeshops after breakfast.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Blue Plate Cafe is a bright spot for breakfast and lunch.