Phew. The close call occurred last winter when a taste for extreme gumbo guided me to the corner of Dauphine Street and Franklin Avenue, ground zero for gumbo and many other long-simmered dishes in Faubourg Marigny's outer reaches. To my dread, Harbor Restaurant & Bar's grimy old placard had been supplanted by the glossy new sign for Cafe Unique. The anonymous brick building was boarded shut. The drive home that afternoon was funereal, and the ensuing few days a bit panicky. But the worst-case scenario never transpired; the restaurant was undergoing an identity shift, but Harbor wouldn't vanish entirely. The building's new owner, Changiz (Chad) Esmail, wasn't about to let a restaurateur's ego get in the way of a good thing.
Esmail began renovations with the intention of reopening the space as a Middle Eastern restaurant (he claims his wife, Narces, to be a wonderful Iranian cook). He began reconsidering, though, as more and more Harbor fans stopped by to bemoan the soul food stalwart's closing. When Harbor's former cooks peeked in, some of whom had worked at the address for nearly two decades, Esmail wised up and hired them on the spot. With the built-in community support and a custom-trained kitchen staff, he realized he could meet his priorities -- to provide working class customers good food cheaply and quickly -- by resurrecting Harbor's soul food legacy.
Recently a beautician on lunch break stood before Cafe Unique's steam table, her waist cinched to nothingness by a shiny waterproof apron, issuing instructions: "I want three spoonfuls of gravy on my chicken and just a small spoonful of potato salad. ... Not too long in the microwave, now -- you know I don't like my food too hot." With her solid stare an employee replied that she knew exactly how hot the beautician wanted it. She'd probably worked this kitchen since the beautician was in pigtails, and she anticipates her regular customers' demands like a barista remembers just how much foam each prima donna likes on her grande decaf skinny latte.
Meanwhile in the adjacent barroom, also the dining room, the only source of light was a solid beam of sunlight angling from the open corner door and illuminating the air with a pale, dusty glow. A man sat alone at a card table, kept company by a fifth of Chivas Regal, a silver ice bucket and a sweating highball glass. At a certain moment he wagged a $1 bill in the air. The only other person in the room, a woman watching court television, retrieved the $1 bill and forced it into a jukebox pushed against the far wall. Soon Otis Redding's languorous "That's How Strong My Love Is" detonated sweetness into the room's darkest corners; the woman raised her arms and spun around sleepily, eyes closed, singing along.
This afternoon at 2529 Dauphine St. was similar in spirit to every afternoon I've experienced at this address, the file gumbo included. Though never an exact imitation of the previous week's, the gumbo here is always of the exhilarating, kitchen-sink variety. Turkey, turkey necks, turkey gizzards, sausage, shrimp, crab claws and rice crowd into a murky file broth that moves across the tongue like brushed velvet. All the food is automatically packaged for take-out even if you eat in the barroom -- except the gumbo, which is ladled royally into painted ceramic bowls.
Tender pork ribs, three fingers wide and soaking in a sweet, vinegary barbecue sauce, also appear on Fridays. They're superb served over white, pepper-flecked macaroni and cheese made with straw-like pasta tubes. Tomato-based succotash is comparable to a summery vegetable soup, and Friday also marks the only, blessed delivery, direct from Marrero, of Minnie Pearl Pies. The crusts are dark and nutty, and crisp grated coconut threads through gooey yellow custard in my favorite, coconut cream. This pie is a valid replacement for the legendary banana pudding that regrettably left the premises with the previous owner.
Smothered chicken, offered every weekday, is essentially fried chicken bathing in rich, brown gravy. People who dream about spooning this kind of gravy over mountains of mashed potatoes should come on Tuesdays, when one portion of real "creamed potatoes" fills the entire entree division of a take-out container. Whatever the day's plate lunches, and however fresh the Bunny Bread, pay the extra $.35 for a square of moist, crumbly cornbread.
Po-boys and fried seafood dinners are always available. A fried catfish po-boy was faultless in execution two weeks ago -- fresh bread, ripe tomatoes, lightly fried, cornmeal pebbled fish -- though the fish itself tasted slightly ammoniated.
There's certain irony to the name Cafe Unique given the rebirth of Harbor's long-established food and spirit. And the dynamic between Esmail and his cooks is intriguing; it's not always clear who's in charge. He mans the cash register and fixes the giant-screen television when it goes on the fritz, but the cooks clearly command the food service and all it entails. Whatever, it works. Cafe Unique wins hands down this year for Best Selfless Act By a Restaurateur and Best Resurrection of a Kitchen.
- CAFE UNIQUE owner Chad Esmail (second from right) works with Brenda Brady, Tammy Mack and Lorraine Garner to keep the soul alive and well at the corner of Dauphine Street and Franklin Avenue.