Tennessee Williams once lived a block away from the Quarter Scene Restaurant, and the place never got over it. Sandwiches were named for characters in his plays. Staff at the restaurant could point out the playful playwright's favorite table -- a two-top by the window closest to Dumaine Street -- and some of the waiters could recount with wistful winces his penchant for goosing them as they passed by.
Maybe that's not so ponderous a heritage compared to those old taverns in the Northeast where George Washington is said to have once slept. But it is a prime example of the lore that French Quarter restaurants seem to collect if they've been in business long enough. The Quarter Scene, opened in 1981 and closed for good by Hurricane Katrina, had almost a quarter-century to build such color and cement its reputation as a neighborhood cafe at the quiet end of the Quarter.
So it was intriguing to learn that a new restaurant had opened in the Quarter Scene space this spring with a radical facelift of the once-familiar dining rooms and a whole new menu. This is "eat New Orleans," which serves casual New Orleans-style dishes for lunch, dinner and weekend brunches. After about four months in business it's already clear the owners have pulled off an impressive trick -- their new restaurant hits all the same notes that made its predecessor a popular neighborhood spot, but does so with better food and more style.
Not to say the new restaurant doesn't have room for improvement -- it does -- but its faults go with the territory for places in this category of casual dining and are balanced by some redeeming characteristics.
One is the BYOB policy, a holdover from the property's Quarter Scene days. Paired with average entre prices hovering around $10 at lunch and $12 at dinner, it's easy to see why some people eat at eat more than once a week.
The food is at its best during the day, and I wish some of the dishes served only for lunch and brunch would make it onto the dinner menu. One example is the shrimp and grits, which would go as well with the $7 bottle of Chardonnay I brought for dinner one night as it did with the iced tea I constrained myself to at lunch. But it is immensely satisfying on its own merits, which begin with large shrimp beautifully cooked in a pleasingly sour broth of wine, sliced mushrooms and green onions poured over an island of creamy grits.
Happily, the seafood gumbo is on all the menus. It has nice oysters showing their ruffled edges, shrimp and crabmeat in a slurp-worthy roux with plenty of okra. Even the cup is a generous portion, since the fluffy rice is served in a separate dish on the side to be added as you see fit.
The fish served at dinner can be a winner, but it all depends on what the kitchen is using. Each time I tried it, the filet was large, simply grilled for a clean flavor and served with a mix of sauted vegetables. The red snapper was meaty, flaky and took well to the light seasoning. But when it was tilapia, the fish itself was just too plain for the restrained preparation, which is why other restaurants usually fry it and cover it in rich sauces. There is no shortage in flavor in the barbecue shrimp, however, which is made in the classic way with a king's ransom in garlic and lemon punching through the buttery sauce.
Waiters usually push the bread pudding for dessert, but I think one of the appetizers actually makes a better finale than a starter. This is the blue cheese and fig torte, which is served like a large slice of cake. It's made with cream cheese blended with pebbles of blue cheese, so the taste is mild and creamy with only hints of pungency. It is cut through with sweet, dark figs chopped up with pecans and the whole thing is drizzled with some fig-flavored sauce.
The appetizer I can't ignore is the gazpacho. The chilled soup is well seasoned and thick without being salsa-chunky. Instead, the cool texture is tangy and smooth, gilded with a small amount of oil. The option to add white knuckles of crabmeat is one only committed vegetarians or those suffering from food allergies should forego. The crab is sweet, tender and adds enormously to the goodness of the soup.
Other choices are basic comfort food-type dishes with a few tweaks. The modestly sized pork chop, finger-thick and served on the bone, gets most of its flavor from the sweet and tangy caramelized onions that smother it. The hamburger is most noteworthy for the accompanying ribbon-thin fries that can be eaten like popcorn.
The cooking is the work of Jarred Zeringue, the first-time restaurateur who bought the place with business partners David Smith and Scott McNair. They were enticed by the French Quarter location, but wasted no time in thoroughly renovating the interior with mellow sea foam colors, smooth surfaces and clean lines that have a remarkably calming, cooling effect. Pictures of the dining rooms would not be out of place in an Ikea catalogue, and in the evenings they are made lively by groups of friends and neighbors toasting each other with their retail-priced drinks. Already, many of them appear to be regulars, declining the offered menus and just reciting their favorite orders.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Jarred Zeringue serves local favorites at eat New Orleans.