When one is accustomed to snowy Decembers, watching the neighbors string Christmas lights in Bermuda shorts does not inspire Yuletide cheer. During my first holiday season in New Orleans, I often wondered how many fat men in red suits were surrendering to heat stroke around town, and when a friend outlined the tradition of Reveillon dinners, I assumed it was a ploy for drawing more business to high-end restaurants. But the holiday spirit here no longer eludes me, a fact that ironically is largely due to those dinners. Since that first winter, Reveillon has achieved verb status with me. Here is my definition of "to Reveillon": "Eating a multi-course meal in the company of other diners doing the same, in a restaurant one might not otherwise frequent, the end result being improved holiday morale." That's how the seasonal feasts have worked on me, anyway, including this year's deal at Tujague's.
To begin, the bar practices a custom that's tragically uncommon where white Christmases prevail: regulars gathering under poinsettias on balmy, December afternoons for icy glasses of brandy milk punch. And the restaurant itself is festive by nature, serving only five-course, prix fixe dinners regardless of the season; excepting a choice between four entrees that change nightly, everyone eats the same meal. Particularly because this dining style isn't routine nowadays, it breeds a level of camaraderie and merriment that makes you wonder what scrooge invented that dull a la carte system. Then there are the white tablecloths, the tuxedo-clad servers, the coffee and chicory served in short glasses with straw-long silver spoons, the tile floor that has seen more footwear trends than Bass -- the tableau is how I imagine restaurants looked along the Parisian boulevards in the early 1900s when Proust sent Swann to scour them in pursuit of the beloved Odette. When he finally finds her, Odette is wearing a black velvet gown with a swansdown plume and cattleyas in the cleft of her bodice. If only I had thought of that outfit for the Reveillon.
Established in 1856, Tujague's is just 16 years younger than Antoine's, and by all accounts very little of its charisma has changed in the past century (except maybe the framed photo of Monica Lewinsky). It might not be a model for how New Orleans is keeping pace with worldly culinary developments, but Tujague's is pulling its weight in shrimp remoulade to ensure that New Orleans remains a bastion of culinary history and tradition.
And what a remoulade: a horseradish-sharp, non-creamy dressing with the rusty color and vigor of a mustardy barbecue sauce. This shrimp remoulade salad and a lightweight hunk of cap bread with its customary rattail of dough always account for the first course at Tujague's. In fact, a compulsory lamb shank entree and brandy eggnog custard for dessert (when the kitchen makes it) are the only courses that will distinguish your meal from anyone's in the room who doesn't Reveillon. After the spunky remoulade course, then, all dinners unfold with the reliability of onions in a gumbo.
Second up is soup du jour, a paltry course-filler in comparison to the flavors that preceded and followed it. On the evening I Reveilloned, it was a thick, floury potage of cream and artichoke hearts; you might receive the house gumbo instead, which was teeming with sweet crabmeat threads along with simmered-to-mush shrimp and oysters at lunch. If Tujague's was the theater, the soup course would be like a practical intermission between the story build-up and the climax to come, the climax being an outrageously flavorful hunk of boiled beef brisket with the suppleness of duck confit and a smoldering tomato-horseradish sauce. Since course tends to beget course with no apparent consideration for timing, servers might threaten to remove the brisket upon their premature entree presentation. Guard it with your life.
While entrees gave worthy performances, the meal's pinnacle clearly had passed. The Reveillon's braised lamb shank came with a clingy, paste-like tomato sauce fortified with kidney beans and carrots. It was a crude dressing for such a graceful preparation of meat, and so I pushed it aside for leprechaun-green mint jelly. Entrees from the spoken-word menu might include a basic preparation of barbecue shrimp bedded on white rice, or the famous, incendiary chicken Bonne Femme. Roasted in pieces until the skin crackles, it's served with garlicky roasted potatoes and a salad of raw garlic and parsley -- an irresistible dish with alienating side effects.
If, as reported by my server, the kitchen ruins your brandy eggnog custard like they did mine, I hope your door prize also is the camel-colored bread pudding garnished with almonds and what tasted like a silky, brown sugar hard sauce. Enter the coffee and chicory, as much as you want.
Is Tujague's for every discerning diner? No. Locals seem either to love it or hate it, and there will be gourmands for whom the lack of progression -- in the outdated wood paneling and in the antique food -- will act as an appetite suppressant. For me it was a tonic, a jump-start on holiday cheer, a new tradition to put under the proverbial tree.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Almost as old as Antoine's, TUJAGUE'S uses its white table cloths and tuxedo-clad servers to great traditional effect for its Reveillon dinners.