If the proper entry to a restaurant is determined by its sign, enter The Esplanade Restaurant through the rear of the Park Esplanade Apartments. Turn into the lot adjacent to St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, park near the cranberry-colored awning and step inside as you would into any other restaurant -- as if the attached seven floors and 440 apartments have nothing whatsoever to do with the independently run restaurant. They don't, not officially.
Take note, however, of a more scenic route that involves driving around to the front of the ominous apartment building, scooting a few hundred feet along Bayou St. John and entering from the building's opposite end. This way, you pass rows of cubbyhole mailboxes and wander through long hallways of identical doors that evoke Kafka's Castle. You bump into retired women who zip around corners in their purple rayon sweatsuits; you see bicycles and metallic walkers being loaded onto elevators; and you watch as smiling maintenance workers slip into unmarked rooms.
You also inhale -- the heavy, stale scent of windowless communal hallways, the chemical sweetness of a beauty salon specializing in permanents, and the muffled smoke of a furtive cigarette. An apartment building of this size is a mini-city, its aroma shifting at every intersection. You ultimately reach the far, dark end of the snaking main hallway and are overwhelmed by the scents of browning butter, sweating garlic and frying shrimp. There's no sign, but you know it's The Esplanade Restaurant; you've come far enough to have earned your appetite.
My boss sometimes has difficulty recruiting lunch companions when he eats at The Esplanade. The apartment building houses many senior citizens, and some of his employees seem to worry that the restaurant is actually a cafeteria for them -- as if age is something one catches in restaurants. They suspect that my boss likes the place for its sheer quirkiness, though its location is no more unconventional than a retired church (Christian's), a former brothel (Sporting House Cafe) or a closed K&B drugstore (Sake Cafe Uptown). And while it's true that he loves the hallways' walk of smells, he eats there for eye-stinging onion rings as wide as a cowboy's belt; for specials like thick, hammy split pea soup; and for spiced bread pudding with foamy white sauce that could almost pass for pumpkin pie and whipped cream.
When owners Rita and Jerry Schiffman opened The Esplanade 15 years ago, they constructed it from one of the complex's standard three-bedroom apartments; they still pay rent like all the other tenants. While Chef Vincent Manguno has hoards of in-house fans, he's quietly earned a sizeable outside clientele as well, which is evidenced by the number of people who enter through the door where the sign hangs. And (not that it matters) the building doesn't only harbor seniors. "We take them all, from college age on up," says one receptionist.
People, smart people, still ask me, "Isn't it old-people food?" It's a tough call, as eating in New Orleans seems to transcend generation gaps. One of Manguno's Friday specials proved at my table that a superb trout amandine is as lusty when eaten at 2 as it is at 72: great-aunt and grand-niece alike tucked into the enormous fillet swathed in light, puffy egg batter, covered in slivered almonds and lolling in drawn butter.
Friday's seafood-heavy menu changes weekly, attracting lovey couples of all ages who come to the unassuming restaurant for glasses of Turning Leaf Chardonnay and economical specials such as pristinely fried flounder, buttery ribeyes "blackened" with dried herbs, garlic and caraway, and savory crabcakes that are only half-crab but also about half a pound each. The fried seafood all comes with dangerously well-buttered toast and does just as well by a cold Budweiser.
If potato salads are a dime a dozen, The Esplanade is a potato salad goldmine. Both mayonnaise-smooth and crunchy, the yellowish house version is as basic as it is good -- a mix of pickle relish, hard-cooked egg and firm bites of potato. Wholesome-tasting chicken salad sandwiches, prepared with shredded chicken, bear striking resemblance to the tuna salad sandwiches. The best sandwich I sampled was a special: slabs of tender corned beef, thick like Thanksgiving turkey leftovers, nudged between slices of rye bread with spiky Creole mustard.
Like the space, which is decorated with mirrored paneling, plaid curtains and silk lilacs, the food is comfortable. The menu is common in its scope and therefore unexpected in its glories. Out of four visits, only three dishes didn't fly: watered-down seafood gumbo, oyster-artichoke stew primarily flavored with grit, and fried oysters the size and weight of packing peanuts.
Mrs. Schiffman and her waitresses work the room like born caretakers, which may contribute to how agreeably the restaurant fits into the Park Esplanade's micro-world. When an over-hungry woman scolded her husband for ordering fried shrimp ("It takes too long!"), they delivered her ham sandwich immediately; when a toddler began to screech, they knew just what television channel would be playing Rugrats. And each request, desire and demand is met with a "Sure, honey," or a "No problem, darlin'" -- regardless of which doorway you passed through upon entering.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Despite its reputation as a place for senior citizens, THE ESPLANADE RESTAURANT pleases palates from ages 2 to 72.