Carrollton: 8400 Oak Street
The closing of Sqeal BBQ on Oak Street brings to mind the several restaurants that previously occupied that address. It was a conversion of a good-looking old house which, when it was a residence, must have been very roomy for its occupants. The ceilings are high and the windows large. I’m just guessing, but I think it was built in the early 1900s, at a time when the Oak Street commercial row just off South Carrollton Avenue was bustling.
Paul and Patti Constantin opened their restaurant at 8400 Oak Street not long after Lee Barnes’ Cooking School shuttered. This was also just after the first wave of new Uptown Creole bistros. That new style of cooking had not only changed the dining patterns of New Orleanians, but altered the business plans of would-be start-up restaurateurs. The Constantins were just out of college, he with a business degree and sales experience, she with many hours spent working for catering companies.
They started out by serving lunches at Carrollton Station, a bar near the streetcar barn. That got them enough attention that they opened their own place a couple blocks away in Lee Barnes’s former building.
The Constantins purveyed more of a homestyle menu than what Clancy’s, the Upperline, Gautreau’s and the other new bistros were giving us. Perhaps this was because Oak Street at the time was quite a bit scruffier than it has lately become. Jacques-Imo’s and other forms of Funky Chic were still years away from catching on.
But Patti is a fine cook. She developed a unique style and enough signature dishes that people still remember them. I get calls every now and then in search of one of her recipes.
Constantin’s menu was on the short side, abetted by more than the usual number of specials. Among the better starters were fried, spinach-wrapped brie; crawfish and basil croquettes, and smoked quail.
A pork chop stuffed with andouille and zucchini was one of the great entrees. So were the veal and lamb chops and chicken stuffed with feta cheese. The most distinctive entree was called chicken turkonion, made by layering chicken breast meat with smoked sausage and fried eggplant, then covering it with a turkey gravy with a major component of caramelized onions. It was a modernized turkey poulette.
They were good with fish, too. This was the time when New Orleans had just discovered grilled fish, and so there was plenty of it, using local species you can’t get anymore. My favorite of Constantin’s fish dishes was an almond-crusted sauteed trout topped with hollandaise made with orange juice instead of lemon juice.
The most impressive thing about Patti Constantin to me was that while she was running her kitchen–a job that takes every minute of your day and every ounce of your stamina–she had three babies. Our kids were born around the same time, and I remember wondering how she did it.
The Constantins were in the forefront of efforts to renovate Oak Street. Unfortunately, those efforts met with little cooperation from the city and the landlords in the area. One night, Paul was shot at as he left the restaurant. Shortly thereafter, they closed the restaurant.
Patti kept up the catering business, however, and she’s still in it as Patti Constantin Designs in Catering in Metairie. Paul has gone back to sales, in the food wholesale business.
I believe it was the Constantins who brought in the fine old wooden bar that the various restaurant tenants and customers of 8400 Oak have enjoyed. It’s still there, waiting for the next tenant to appear.