Tuesday, February 15, 2011

It Was Aristotle Who Said:

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

And that pretty much describes the legendary Camellia Grill, a local institution since 1946, located just a half block off St. Charles Avenue. It doesn’t serve the best food in New Orleans. The menu is not that creative. The décor is certainly not that attractive. And the seating is decidedly uncomfortable. But it holds a special spot in the hearts of New Orleanians and savvy tourists.

“Eating at the Camellia Grill is one of those things on the ‘must do’ list for visitors to New Orleans. It was probably not specifically intended to be that way, but that's the way it is.... It has become unbelievably popular, with an almost cult like following. It has long been a favorite with locals and students from the University section, but it is a destination for many visitors... who come to New Orleans with the stated intent of eating at Camellia Grill....

The Camellia Grill is an old-time, nearly-extinct relic of years past. (It) is a Greek Revival structure that reminds one of a plantation home. It is one of the old classic diners, with a counter and those little round stools secured to the floor.... Yet, to eat there, you must wait in line outside, until the doorman indicates that there is room for your party. In spite of the fast pace behind the counter, you are filled with anticipation as you scan the menu and place your order” (www.atneworleans.com).

We were lucky. It was a weekday—and a cold one at that. The tourists (We consider ourselves to be travelers—thank you very much.) hadn’t ventured out on the St. Charles streetcar line, and when we arrived, we had our choice of seats at the counter. And those are the only seats—at the counter with the stools so close together that you quickly become very good friends with your counter-mates.

We had eaten at Camellia Grill on all but one of our seven trips to New Orleans.

Even though it had been almost ten years since we were there last, we felt we had been there just yesterday. The Mickey Mouse clock still hangs over the counter and the walls are still the same shade of pink. The waiters still keep up a running banter with the cooks. The waiters still present the straws with a grand flourish, removing one end of the paper sleeve and handing you the straw so that you can, with equal flourish, pull the straw from the remaining end of the sleeve which is still held by the waiter.

And, as noted at www.atnew orleans. com: “Something that cannot go unnoticed is the fact that you are given a firm, white, cloth napkin instead of those little flimsy paper things everywhere else! In disbelief, I shake my head, and wonder how we could ever have embraced all of these ubiquitous fast food hamburger chains.”

The only change that I could discern was that the restrooms had—thankfully—been remodeled.

At each end of the food prep area behind the counter are a flat top, and deep fat fryer, and a pair of ancient waffle irons. Each half of the counter has its own cook and wait staff--all to keep the flow of customers moving.

“For a time after Hurricane Katrina, it looked as though the diner would be no more, but the community begged for Camellia Grill to reopen as evidenced by the many letters and signs posted on the outside walls of the building.... Although the diner sustained no damage from Katrina..., the owners decided in 2006 to sell the place to a local restaurateur whose goal was to update the diner while leaving its familiar look and reopen the landmark for all of New Orleans guests from coast to coast” (www.thecajunfoodie.com).

The menu is your basic “short order” diner with emphasis on burgers and other sandwiches; omelettes with the eggs whipped in a blender so that the finished product is ultra light and fluffy; thin and crisp waffles made in the old-fashioned irons and served with either maple or extremely sweet—and a Louisiana favorite—cane syrup; red beans and rice on Mondays, presented with a hamburger patty on the side; and desserts, including their famous pecan pie.

Chuck chose, from the list of Whole Meal Sandwiches, the Word Special. (Don’t ask me why it’s called this; I don’t know.) This was two large hot sausage patties on a “hoagie” roll with lettuce, tomato, and mayo and served with a side of fries. We could see the fries being cooked—the second fry—right in front of us and knew that they hadn’t been sitting under a heat lamp. The juicy sausage patties were seasoned with cayenne—lots of cayenne—and lots of garlic—lots of garlic. It wasn’t quite hot Italian sausage, and it wasn’t quite andouille sausage. But it was quite delicious.

I also chose from the Whole Meal Sandwiches—the Fried Catfish Special which was three good-sized filets with a corn meal coating, deep fried and served on the same kind of roll with mayo, lettuce, and tomato. No one—I repeat—no one knows how to fry fish and seafood like the good folks of Louisiana. They know just when to remove the fish from the fryer so that the crust is crisp and the fish still moist and sweet.

And now let me tell you about the dessert—the pecan pie to be precise. The slice of pie is placed crust down on the flat top for a few minutes; then the cook squirts a generous amount of liquid butter over the pie top; then the pie is flipped and cooked top down (above) until the pecans become crisp and the sugars caramelize. One of the best pecan pies ever—especially when topped with Bluebell vanilla ice cream.

A visit to Camellia Grill is all about the whole experience—and it’s a 5.0 Addie experience at that.

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