200 Metairie-Hammond Highway
This is the second of a two-part look at the restaurant on the corner of Hammond Highway and Lake Avenue. Since the 1970s, it has been the home of over a half-dozen different restaurants. In the first installment, we covered the extinct eateries C’Est La Vie, Carmine’s, and Rico’s Bucktown Café. We continue with. . .
Muses was a rare exception to my habit of staying away from newly-opened restaurants. I wandered in thinking I would be dining at Rico’s, which had shown promise in the three years it was at the corner of Hammond Highway and Lake Avenue. That Bucktown address already had a history of restaurants coming and going over about twenty years.
Indeed, Rico’s sign was still up. But I found a new restaurant with a style and menu quite upscale of what Rico’s had been. Muses and its chef-owner were so charming–and the restaurant seemed so tenuous–that I thought I’d better get the word out quickly.
In Bucktown, there’s a restaurant stereotype that posits, among other things, a psychological ceiling on prices. For most people, Bucktown meant a fried seafood platter for ten of those bucks. Or a poor boy sandwich for cheaper still.
But Muses was a gourmet bistro. It was created by Victoria Grulich, a New York native who spent 14 years in France (learning the chef’s craft during the stay) before returning home. She came to New Orleans with the idea of pursuing a career as a television chef. That, however, requires some sort of restaurant home base, and Muses was to be that.
She didn’t invest much money in the premises. George Rico had left a reasonably pleasant restaurant behind. Just a paint job, and cotton covers for the stackable chairs were needed. Victoria put most of her efforts into cooking brilliant food. The French accent was hard to miss, but she incorporated other flavors. And, because Bucktown is historically a fishing village, a lot of seafood.
Cloud-like crabmeat beignets appeared with a zippy wasabi dipping sauce. The shrimp for the remoulade were grilled instead of boiled–a nice idea no other chefs had yet adopted. Not all of the seafood came from the lake across the street, however. The big bowl of mussels in a creamy broth with savory herbs was the first big hit here.
Victoria made a pate de campagne in the French bistro style. Salmon and tuna tartare, with a sharp dressing of lime juice and sesame oil, was a perky pile. The most talked-about entree was fish roasted on a cedar plank. It combined the effects of grilling, steaming, and smoking. Trout meuniere was wet down with brown butter, capers, and crabmeat.
Muses had a rack of not just lamb but veal. And a pork chop with a Southwestern flavor on the outside, and French Muenster cheese on the inside.
When Muses first opened, they offered a magnificent cheese plate with six selections, all in perfect condition and served at the right temperature. It wasn’t the first failure to get New Orleanians to eat cheese at the end of a meal, and won’t be the last. Instead, the diners finished with lemon tarts or pecan bread pudding or the super-dense chocolate terrine.
Service was not at the level of Victoria’s cooking. On busy nights, she often had to leave the stove to get the food out to the tables.
There were other problems. Enough that when Victoria’s lease ran out after a year, she was convinced that Bucktown was the wrong place for her and closed Muses. Her plan was to find another location for her restaurant.
She never did. I have no idea where she wound up, but I don’t think she’s in New Orleans anymore.
Saia’s On The Lake
Saia’s On The Lake was the reincarnation of the Beef Room, a steakhouse founded in the 1960s on Causeway Boulevard at I-10. The Beef Room was the successor to the Sirloin Room on South Claiborne well before that. (All of this is covered in an article elsewhere in the Extinct Restaurants department of NOMenu.com.)
The Saia family took over the Beef Room in the 1980s and moved it across the intersection to a larger building. But it was hard to get to, and after fighting that battle for a decade owner Sam Saia decided to move.
The restaurant on the corner of Lake Avenue and Hammond Highway in Bucktown was available–again. The address saw a parade of restaurants over the years (C’Est La Vie, Carmine’s, Rico’s and Muses were the most recent). The previous two tenants left behind premises handsome enough to allow Saia to move his restaurant right in.
This new Saia’s had a view of the levee, not the lake behind it. But the lake and the history of Bucktown had to be recognized. Although they continued to serve prime steaks, the menu flipped almost entirely over to seafood. They cooked it not just in the standard fried and boiled forms, but in more ambitious, unexpected ways.
Saia’s had trout Marguery, escargots, baked oysters several ways, barbecue shrimp, and crabmeat au gratin. The best appetizer was unique: a grilled duck sausage. The rest of the duck was roasted with a cherry brandy glaze, sent out almost sizzling. Seafood-stuffed mushrooms with hollandaise were excellent. Shrimp remoulade was more like a salad. Seafood gumbo. Turtle soup.
The fried seafood platters were billed as boats, but it was just standard garlic bread topped with shrimp, oysters, or catfish, all of which were rendered well. But Saia’s didn’t have a chance in the fried-seafood biz against the plethora of other fry shacks in West End Park nearby.
On the other hand, Saia’s steaks were the best in the vicinity. The grade was prime, and the style sizzling in butter. They also had a large and excellent double-bone pork chop, and a rack of baby lamb chops.
Saia’s was in business when, on August 29, 2005, something big made it close. Sam Saia decided that he was old enough to exit the restaurant business gracefully, and that was the end of that.
Live Bait Bar & Grill
Between the damage done to Bucktown by Hurricane Katrina and the road and drainage rebuilding that ensued (it’s still going on), it was a few years before the building at the corner of Hammond Highway and Lake Avenue received its sixth tenant. Live Bait Bar & Grill was really more of a bar and music club than it was a restaurant. I never went there, because the reports from readers and radio listeners were consistently distressing. Seafood was the big deal, but low-end steaks and burgers were there, too. The best that could be said about Live Bait was that it outlasted all the previous tenants here except Carmine’s.
The building underwent some renovation and reopened in the summer of 2013 as Bucktown Burger and Seafood Company, a new effort from Chef Andrew Jaeger. I wish it long days and safety from the jinx that brought down six previous restaurants.