Monday, January 23, 2012

It Was a Beautiful Day…

for lunch by Lake Pontchartrain. There was just one problem. You couldn’t see the lake except from this person’s vantage point.

We are in East New Orleans (“…the portion of the city to the east of the Industrial Canal and north of the Intracoastal Waterway. It is often called ‘New Orleans East’ as well, or simply
‘The East’. New Orleans East is a portion of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.” []) to visit Castnet Seafood, a combination fresh fish market and seafood restaurant visited by Ben Sargent on the Cooking Channel’s Hook, Line & Dinner. (Sargeant was also a contestant on the Food Networks program Chopped and, if my memory serves, was eliminated from the competition in the first round.) Castnet is where famed New Orleans restaurateur John Besh got his first restaurant job in 1962 as a busser, prep cook, and night cleaner.

In 2010, Brett Anderson of The Times Picayune wrote: “Kent Bondi was 19 years old when he purchased Joyce's Seafood in eastern New Orleans from a woman who lived in the apartment above it. In the early days, he stayed afloat selling 99-cent fried shrimp buns to the workers building the levee out front. Twenty years later, the same sandwich will set you back $3.50, and Bondi's corner of Hayne Boulevard, where you'll also find a snowball stand and Walker's Southern Style Bar-B-Que, seems to be where half the reduced population of the community goes to eat.”

As described by Ray Cannata at “…you never know what mysteries and wonders can be found in the humblest of places. And this place is very humble. It is in the least funky and creative neighbor-hood in all NOLA…An area working hard to come back from 15 feet of water in Katrina, with very few restaurants and not more than two or three good ones. The place is a shack, looking at the levee. You are greeted with a six-and-a-half-foot high ceiling (in a city where the average ceiling height is twice that). It shares the building with a very good BBQ place…”

If you enter through the left door, you are in the fresh seafood market (left) which was hopping with customers at noon on a weekday. The right door takes you into the order-at-the-counter restaurant (right and below) which was equally busy with most of the customers being local workers ordering lunch for take out.

As you might guess, the menu is primarily seafood (almost all of the fried variety), but they do offer hamburgers and smoked sausage, meatball, roast beef, chicken, ham, and turkey sandwiches. And as an added bonus, you can get a whole turkey neck for just $1.99.

As we were ordering, I looked around for seating. All I saw was one stool along a counter and an unoccupied picnic table in front. So while Chuck was waiting for our food, I ran outside to capture the picnic table. Then dumb luck struck. I had picked up a take out menu and read a notation for “’The Other Side’ Sitdown/Dine-In Area.”

So a search party of one (that would be me) set forth to discover this new land. My explorations led me to a door that took me into both the BBQ stand and the utilitarian (see the cement floor from which a significant portion of the paint has been worn away) dining area it shares with Castnet. Interior decoration? Not unless you consider a few posters bearing the Saints schedule and a deer’s head inexplicably wearing a life preserver to be decorations. But who cares about décor (cleanliness yes—décor no) if the food is good and the price is right.

Chuck soon found me on “The Other Side” with our lunch. For him it was the (What else?) catfish poor boy which may have been the best version of this sandwich we have encountered on this trip. The difference was the catfish being served was larger—almost filet–sized portions, rather than smaller strips—so that the possibility of its being overcooked was minimized. The bread (bakery unknown) was appropriately crusty with the requisite—here in New Orleans at least—soft interior. With the sandwich, he ordered a side of seasoned fries that, while probably coming frozen from a bag, were nice and crisp.

I had a mighty hankerin’ for oysters, so I selected the oyster plate which came with a side of potato salad and what was described on the menu as “salad.” That is, if you call a few pieces of iceberg with a tomato slice and a small packet of dressing salad. The potato salad was of the mostly mashed potato variety and tasted slightly of mustard, onion, and some form of herb. It was pretty standard for Louisiana potato salad. Not bad. Not great.

The oysters were another story. Depending on their size, the platter contains eighteen to twenty-four oysters that were lightly coated. Under the thin crackling crust lies plump, juicy, and slightly briny—although not as salty as those that come for more northern, colder waters—oysters. The best time to harvest Gulf oysters is from October to May but I recently read somewhere that Gulf oysters are at their best now, and I can’t imagine them being any better. Even Chuck—no oyster lover—sampled one and admitted that it was pretty good.

The fish and seafood parts of both of our lunches were very good while the sides were average. Since the main component rules the ratings, Castnet earns 4.0 Addies.

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