Wednesday, December 14, 2011

“I Really Love This Place!”

We’ll get back to that statement later.

About a month ago, we received a very welcome e-mail. Chuck’s cousin Karen Allsing and her husband Dick were planning a long weekend in New Orleans that would coincide with our five-week stay. Dick and Karen met in New Orleans and the city holds a special place in their hearts. What better way to spend four days than with others who love the city like we do.

Prior to dinner, we met for a drink in the historic Sazerac Bar at the Hotel Roosevelt. Discretion says that you don’t go taking photos in bars so you will have to take my word that the room has a warm and clubby atmosphere with its famous Paul Ninas murals that flank the long African walnut bar that takes you back to the grandeur of old.

Then it was off to catch the Canal Street streetcar and head out to Mandina’s—one of Dick and Karen’s New Orleans’ favorites—for dinner.

“Sebastian Mandina came from Palermo, Italy in 1898, to open the building at 3800 Canal Street as a grocery store. It was a favorite of the Italian immigrants who'd come from New York to prosper off of the farm lands of Southern Louisiana.... His two young sons, Anthony and Frank, grew up in the family business throughout the early 1900's. The boys would see Mandina's evolve from a grocery store to a pool-hall that sold sandwiches. It was Anthony and Frank who would turn the pool-hall into today's Mandina's Restaurant in 1932. The family continued to live upstairs. Frank lived on one side; Anthony and his wife, a tough red-head named Hilda, lived on the other. Anthony bartended while Hilda managed the dining room. ‘Hilda would come out and talk to all the people, be nice with everybody. It just evolved into a neighborhood restaurant,’ describes Cindy Mandina, the restaurant's fourth generation proprietor” (

One of my lingering memories about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is my watching TV early—like 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m.—in the morning. The anchor was speaking with a nurse at one of the hospitals and she was describing the water that was beginning to flow down Canal Street. This was my first knowledge that the levees failed to hold. Being on Canal, Mandina’s was not spared. “Ian McNulty writing for the Gambit Weekly says: ‘Mandina’s was one of those New Orleans institutions in which major change seemed impossible. But change came all at once, courtesy of Katrina…. Everything from the drywall to the light fixtures is new. There is a better flow to the place…. But to sit at a table and look out the neon-laced windows feels just like the old days.

‘In a city renowned for its small, funky, local joints as well as its fine-dining establishments, dis is da ultimate neighbahood N’Awlins restaurant...Go for the wonderful red beans and rice with Italian sausage, the trout meuniere, the grilled trout, or our favorite comfort food, the sweet Italian sausage and spaghetti combo. Finish up with rum-soaked Creole bread pudding, and you’ll have such a taste of New Orleans you’ll feel like a native from da old neighbahood’” (Frommer’s Portable New Orleans).

While waits of a half hour or more are not uncommon, we were lucky and were immediately escorted past the bar to a seat in the downstairs dining room. Dick looked around the room with a giant smile on his face and stated “I really love this place!” And it is easy to see why. “Mandina’s attracts legions of locals and more adventurous tourists. Suits, older folks, and regulars.... Veteran wait staff negotiate the narrow aisles with an old-school mix of grace and authority” (Citysearch Web Resource). This is old New Orleans.

The menu is described as Creole Italian, but I only saw four entrees that I would call strictly Italian—meatballs and spaghetti, veal parmesan and spaghetti, Italian sausage and spaghetti, and chicken parmesan and spaghetti. But that’s alright. I didn’t come to New Orleans to eat Italian food.

Three of us started with soup. Well, to be accurate, Dick and I started with soup and Karen with the seafood gumbo which contained whole crab claws and back pieces. When Dick received his cup of the homemade turtle soup (right), he proclaimed that he had been hungry for this since their last New Orleans trip two or three years ago.

I chose a cup of the artichoke and oyster soup that had a thick and creamy base and contained pieces of artichoke and had a subtle oyster flavor.

Chuck ordered the fried calamari appetizer which was a huge heap of rings and tentacles that had been coated with a cornmeal based coating. (Guess who got the crispy tentacles?) In the Italian tradition, the calamari was served with a small dish of marinara instead of tartar of cocktail sauces. I don’t know if this is an East Coast phenomenon, but I haven’t seen calamari served this way in the western part of the country.

For entrees, both Dick and Chuck went the poor boy route. Dick’s oyster poor boy (right) was so loaded with oysters that they couldn’t be contained inside the bread.

Chuck’s was the catfish (left) which was equally loaded with fillings. I don’t know if Mandina’s uses Leidenheimer’s breads, but the audible crunch when Chuck bit into his sandwich leads me to believe so. (Dick’s sandwich was equally as large as Chuck’s, but one half disappeared before it could be included in the photo.)

Karen and I both ordered appetizers as our entrees. Karen’s was the Shrimp Remoulade—a large portion of shrimp bathed in remoulade that was “zippy” from creole mustard. I am always amazed that every restaurant has their own recipe for remoulade and this was an especially delicious one. And can anyone cook shrimp better than the Chinese and Southern Louisianans? Karen shared one of her shrimp with me and it was sweet, juicy, and perfectly cooked.

One of the night’s specials—and my selection—was the crawfish cake appetizer. I had no idea what these might be, but was happy that I had made the choice. Mandina’s had taken the mixture that is used to stuff crawfish heads for crawfish bisque or is formed into balls for crawfish boulettes—both of which I ate while in the Lafayette area last year. In this case, this mixture was formed into patties, fried, and served with the same remoulade that graced Karen’s shrimp. Delicious.

As we were finishing our 5.0 Addie meal, Dick exclaimed once more “I really love this place!” We can see why.

So is it time to call it a night? No--it’s time to rock and bowl.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

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