THE CHARLES ROOM
SCLAFANI’S IN THE QUARTER
Last month, the management, chef, and dining room staff of the Bombay Club moved to a new home a block away, under the new name “Richard Fiske’s Martini Bar And Restaurant.” It’s too soon to review, other than to say that it intends to keep the formula it used at the Bombay Club for over twenty years.
However, the move does bring to mind other restaurants that have occupied in Richard Fiske’s new spot in the Chateau LeMoyne Hotel. My memories of those is sketchy. For the most part, the restaurants at the corner of Dauphine and Bienville were basic hotel eateries, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days to hotel guests not up to walking the two blocks to to the richest pool of restaurants in the entire city. (Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Red Fish Grill, Bourbon House, Acme, Felix’s, Louis XVI, Begue’s, and Mr. B’s, to name the best.)
But some of the hotel’s restaurant operators really tried to cook memorably. I remember two in particular.
The Charles Room opened at a time when many local restaurants were breaking away from standard New Orleans cooking and putting on gourmet airs. Most such gambits now seem gimmicky. The Charles Room is a particularly good example. It described what it offered this way, in a 1971 ad:
The Charles Room Carries A Torch For You!
Enjoy the newest adventure in great dining, enticing the most fastidious gourmet with flaming sword masterpieces and an exciting menu of Continental and Creole cuisine.
Flaming sword masterpieces? Continental?
Although I was eating in restaurants every day in 1972, I was far from being an epicure. The places I favored were the Buck 49 Steak House, the Camellia Grill, the Steak Pit, Martin’s Poor Boy Restaurant, the Coffee Pot, and UNO’s own white-tablecloth restaurant, the Flambeau Room. But Richard Collin’s Underground Gourmet book and columns inspired me to extend my horizons and become a gourmet myself.
A fellow student and I got into a conversation about restaurants one noon. He told me he worked as a busboy at the Chateau LeMoyne, and was in line to become a waiter. He said that I ought to try The Charles Room for my new restaurant review column in the UNO student newspaper. He said that the restaurant would probably pick up the check if I said I’d write about it. My ethics about such matters were not fully formed, and I believed him. So one cold, drippy Sunday night I went to The Charles Room, dressed in jacket and tie to look respectable.
It was a Saints road game day, and the place had only a scattering of customers. I looked over the menu and ordered my usual onion soup and a salad with blue cheese dressing. And then I took the gourmet plunge: the flaming beef sword with mushrooms, peppers, and onions for $4.95. The waiter said it was served only for two, but that it was not uncommon for a hungry-looking man like me to eat the whole thing, because the amount of meat involved was the same as for one filet mignon. I was twenty-one, with the appetite for which males of that age are known. The waiter got me started with the soup and salad.
While I worked on that, the waiter set up the table with a Sterno-powered tabletop burner, atop which was a skillet searing chunks of steak in butter. He added a brown sauce with the promised vegetables and let it come to a simmer. Already, the aroma was seriously mouthwatering.
When the waiter was satisfied that the beef was cooked to medium rare, he pushed two swords–broad-bladed skewers about a foot long–through the solid contents of the pan, alternating the chunks of steak with the other solids. He rested them across the top of the pan, and added a cup of another sauce, this one containing a good bit of brandy. He struck a match and a blue flame jumped up. It caused the meat to sizzle as he turned the swords over the fire. When it went out, he dislodged the contents of the swords onto my plate. Ta-da!
I went right for the steak, of course. The first flavor was of the crunchy bits around the edges, and pretty good. But as I got into the sauce, I took an instant dislike to the flavor. I now know that my objection was to the unevaporated alcohol all over the sword stuff. Instinct told me that I might be able to cut this back by spooning some of the sauce from the pan over the beef. That helped, but I remained disappointed, and wished for my reliable Buck 49 steak. Nevertheless, I cleaned the plate.
“I’m glad you liked it,” the waiter said, when he came back to disassemble the apparatus. “Not everybody does.”
“Yeah, well, I’m the restaurant critic for my newspaper, and I have to try everything!”
“What, are you the Underground Gourmet?”
“No, but I know him.” (He was in fact one of my teachers at UNO.)
“Well, I hope he never comes here,” the waiter said. I wondered what he meant by that. I also wondered where my friend the busboy was. I hadn’t mentioned to him that I was coming. I figured his working hours were like mine: all the time. I casually dropped his name to the waiter. He laughed. “‘College Boy,’ that’s what we call him, he said.
I had caramel custard for dessert. (Creme brulee was unheard of back then.) The waiter brought asked if there were anything else he could do for me, and said that the management would like to buy me an after-dinner drink. “Amaretto,” I said. (I had recently discovered that Amaretto had the flavor of Dr. Nut, my favorite soft drink of all time. It disappeared from the market around 1964.)
The waiter also brought the check, of course. $18.35, the highest price I’d ever paid for a dinner for just myself. A cold, dark pit opened in my stomach. At that time, a steak at Chris Steak House was $6, and that was beyond what I felt good about spending. Worse yet, I didn’t have that much money on me. My only credit card was Texaco. I asked if I could write a check.
I wrote the check with my calligrapher’s hand, and walked out with a fake smile on my face. I wasn’t sure I had that much in the bank. Then it hit me that I’d forgotten to include a tip in the check.
One of my jobs in that year was servicing the coin boxes for the weekly newspaper Figaro. (Nine years later, I was the editor-in-chief.) I had quite a few Figaro boxes within a few blocks, and I had my key with me. I made the rounds and collected just over $25. I stopped at the 24-hour Gilmore’s Newsstand in the 100 block of Royal, where the manager knew me well. (He sold my papers.) I exchanged my pocketful of quarters for a twenty and a fiver.
I returned to The Charles Room and caught a glare from the waiter. “I forgot something!” I said, handing him a five. “And tell you what. Let me swap out that check I wrote for cash.”
I was too embarrassed ever to return to the The Charles Room. Richard Collin never wrote about it in his books or columns, nor did any other food writer. Flaming sword masterpieces would not be long-term.
The next time I darkened the door of the former Charles Room was twenty-four years later, when Peter Sclafani III opened his first restaurant, using his family name. His grandfather was famous for Sclafani’s on Causeway Boulevard in Metairie and its Mid-City predecessor. His father had a restaurant in New Orleans East, where Peter and his brother Gino had come up through the kitchen ranks.
Sclafani’s in the Quarter seemed like a good bet. The combination of Italian the Creole food that the Sclafanis had always purveyed. Peter had that cookbook very much up to date. He did many well-seasoned roasts of things like venison. Cooked fish medium-rare. Stacked elements of dishes vertically. Used fresh herbs. Brought a general lightness to textures.
But he cooked traditional Creole-Italian food, too. I remember eggplant Belle Rose as a great dish, topped with crawfish tails and mushrooms and napped with a brown meuniere sauce.
Peter was the first chef I remember who served Copper River salmon. It’s a king salmon which, because it travels so far up the Copper River to spawn, has the highest fat content of any salmon. Peter III placed the beautiful fish atop a pile of pasta with corn, tasso, and a minimal creamy sauce–a great plate of food.
But what I remember most vividly is an Eat Club dinner we held at Sclafani’s in the Quarter in August 1996. It still holds the record as the most voluminous Eat Club event in history. It was something like eight courses–not tasting courses, but full portions.
By the time we were past the soft-shell crab (the fourth course, monstrous in size), the women were packing untouched plates of food to go. The men kept eating, of course. Peter came out to say that, with the duck finished, we had only one more course. We thought he meant dessert, but no: it was a large filet mignon topped with crabmeat. Even the men groaned at that–but we did put dents into that piled-high plate anyway.
We had a lot of wine, too. I got home very late. At five the next morning, my family and I left on a two-week road trip out west. I was miserable all day long. I don’t think I’ve ever overeaten so much.
Peter left the Chateau LeMoyne to become chef and later co-owner of the excellent Ruffino’s restaurants in Baton Rouge and Lafayette. His food is still terrific and over served. And now Richard Fiske’s crew is keeping the space popping with contemporary Creole food, great martinis, and live music. But no flaming swords.