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Whether it’s a Po’ Boy washed down with Barq’s Root Beer or Poisson Meunière Amandine in the most haute of haute eateries, if it’s made in New Orleans it’ll always be great. That’s especially true during Mardi Gras, the celebration that blessedly coincides with crawfish and soft-shelled crab seasons and ends on Ash Wednesday. It’s like Mother Nature planned it that way. During Mardi Gras NOLA natives crave the mix of traditional French-Creole, Cajun and Southern fare made by the city’s best restaurants. Old-guard Galatoire’s makes some of the best.
Galatoire’s formidable Friday lunch lines are the stuff of legend. U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston was once waiting when he was told that President Reagan was calling. Senator Johnston left the line, took the call and then resumed his place. Galatoire’s has since relaxed its no reservation policy. You can reserve a Friday lunch table but only upstairs, i.e. dining with tourists. “Friday-before-Mardi Gras” is one of the city’s busiest eating days which means lunching at Galatoire’s goes from improbable to impossible unless you do one of two things.
Call a year in advance on Ash Wednesday at 9:00 AM. Tables are gone by 9:03 AM. Or, raise a paddle at Galatoire’s “Friday Before Mardi Gras Auction” and reserve a coveted downstairs table (sans cost of the meal). The “Friday Before” auctions, one for Mardi Gras, one for Christmas, have raised $500,000 for local charities since 2006.
“We’ve been here for more than one-hundred years. We have grandfathers who came here when they were boys now bringing their grandchildren. That’s a tradition that we honor,” says Executive Chef, Brian Landry. Waiters, many who have been there for twenty-five years (there are even two father-son waiter teams) not only serve their own regulars, they order for them. Regulars never see menus, order dishes not on the menu (hello Chicken Rochambeau and Pompano en Papillote) or create their own, like Trout Meunière Amandine, Extra Dirt. “Dirt” is the browned milk solids in a classic butter, lemon, parsley, meunière sauce. Extra dirt” is extra sauce.
Landry, a University of Alabama grad who majored in Biology and Philosophy and opted for culinary school over med school, oversees Galatoire’s as well as Galatoire’s Bistro in Baton Rouge. He wasn’t tasked with innovation - no gluten-free, no weirdo ingredients, no pretension. He subtly improves dishes by introducing different techniques or refining ingredients, but always preserving the character of Galatoire’s ultimate high-end comfort food.
Mardi Gras revelers devour Crabmeat Sardou, fresh lump crabmeat on artichoke hearts on a bed of creamed spinach, drizzled with hollandaise, Oysters Rockefeller and Crawfish Etouffee. “I do a medium brown roux,” he says (cooked butter and flour that gives sauces and stews richness, color and texture), “cooking it to a peanut butter color.” Shades of roux are a serious and often contentious topic among New Orleans chefs. For something heartier like duck gumbo he goes with “an almost a black roux, because it’s a more in-your-face broth.” Galatoire’s makes all of its stocks from scratch, one secret all great dishes share. Crawfish Etouffee calls for a gallon of it.
During Mardi Gras, Galatoire’s feeds the influx of Louisianans coming in for the parades and lots of “krewes,” the private groups that organize and operate parades. The Rex Parade, formed in 1872, is one of the oldest and Galatoire’s always hosts the Rex Krewe Lieutenants dinner, which always starts with Galatoire Gouté. It’s a sampler of Shrimp Remoulade (theirs is a mayonnaise-free emulsified vinaigrette with Creole mustard, horseradish, hot paprika, pureed trinity, Worcestershire Sauce) and Crabmeat Maison, lump crabmeat tossed with mayonnaise and lemon juice, studded with capers and green onions. It’s usually supplemented with Oysters en Brochette, smoked bacon-wrapped oysters, battered, dredged, fried till crispy and drizzled with meunière.
Landry says fears of petrochemical-laced seafood are unfounded. “Louisiana seafood is the single most tested food on the planet, specifically because of the oil spill,” he explains. All seafood is tagged to identify the exact origin of every creature and monitored by the FDA, Wildlife and Fisheries and NOAA. No other food receives such scrutiny, he says.
Post Katrina, water was lapping at Landry’s roofline. When he saw it he remembered, “that I had left my car on the front lawn so it wouldn’t get wet.” Galatoire’s escaped unscathed, paying its staff during the Katrina “hiatus.” That meant, says Landry, “that we were ready to go the first day we opened not just physically, but mentally. We helped give people what they wanted, a sense of normalcy.” Then came the oil spill’s sucker-punch. Now, however, New Orleans has more restaurants than before, supported by a smaller population. “The people here now really want to be here and we want New Orleans to succeed,” he says. “We love this city and we’re determined that it does well.”
The city’s big restaurants close on the last day of Mardi Gras because it’s essentially a family holiday. Locals like Landry set up grills in front of the apartments they’ve rented for ten days along the St. Charles Avenue parade route and family pours in. Everyone in his family hunts and fishes, so he’s already made venison sausage and he’ll grill those and venison steaks. To balance wild duck’s leanness, Landry wraps the breast in bacon with a raw jalapeno and a dollop of creamcheese and grills it medium. He’s doing jambalaya, he’s doing etouffee and “Red Fish on the Half Shell.” He fillets the fish, seasons it with Creole spices, leaving scales on one side. He grills it scale-side down where it simultaneously cooks and steams. He’ll mix lots of Bloody Marys. And he expects he’ll be serving a beer or two.
Friday-Before-Mardi Gras will always be the toughest table in town, but a seat next to the Landry family barbecue on St. Charles Avenue on Fat Tuesday itself may just be the best.