Ro Jé French Restaurant

New Orleans East: 6940 Martin Dr.

When the eastern half of New Orleans began to build itself in the 1970s, everyone expected the area to become another Metairie. All the pieces were there: the major regional shopping mall, the suburban tract homes, the supermarkets. When a critical mass of Orleanians moved there, restaurants appeared.

The early restaurants in New Orleans East were very good. Already there was a community of seafood houses along Hayne Boulevard, rivaling those in West End Park. That made sense, given the proximity to the lake. But a nicer surprise was the number of more ambitious places, with beautiful dining rooms, advanced menus with a French touch, and complex food. The best of those was Crozier’s, a five-star French bistro. It opened in 1976 and was very successful. New Orleans East also had more excellent Chinese places than any other part of town.

At the peak of the development came a grand French-Creole restaurant called Ro Jé. The name was manufactured from Rosemary and Jerry Schroeder, the owners. I always thought that they should have respelled it Roget’s, followed by a description of the place as “Delicious, wonderful, toothsome, scrumptious, magnificent, tasty, savory, marvelous, and formidable!”

Ro Jé took itself quite seriously. In its early years, this was a successful strategy. The casual gourmet restaurant was still years away. Enough well-heeled customers lived in New Orleans East to keep the place busy, if the food were good.

It was. Consistent, too. I know, because I ate there a lot. The new owner of New Orleans Magazine (which I edited then) moved our offices from the CBD to the Kenilworth Mall–at the intersection of I-10 and Morrison Drive. His main business was a magazine selling used airplanes, and it made sense for that to be close to the airport. Didn’t make a lot of sense for New Orleans Magazine, but the guy was proud of writing all his own rules.

Ro Jé was across the parking lot from our new offices. The boss lunched there almost every day. I had other restaurants I needed to check for my restaurant reviews, but nevertheless I dined at Ro Jé more often than anywhere else.

As consistent as Ro Jé was, it was also safely far back from the cutting edge of cuisine. And that was a time when the edge wasn’t all that sharp. It was a time when all the major restaurants in New Orleans had interchangeable menus. It was the perfect thing for the suburbs: upscale, but familiar.

It was pleasant in other ways. Fernando Barahoma–the dining room manager–assembled an extraordinarily well-skilled and beautiful staff of hostesses and waitresses. They wore Edwardian chambermaid uniforms, to show that their pulchritude was no accident.

The premises were an optical treat, too, probably because Jerry Schroeder was in the construction business. The two rooms were lit by chandeliers. Tables were comfortable and well-spaced.

The style of cooking was a standard New Orleans Italian French, plus a few continental surprises (more bearnaise and peppercorn cream sauce than normal for those times). Yet the prices were affordable enough for frequent patronage. In the 1970s, a three-course dinner went for less than ten bucks. Not one of the entrees passed that mark, not even steak. And the portions were generous, too. Even adjusted for inflation, it was a great bargain.

Ro Jé most unusual and exciting dish was escargots Forestier. Snails were much more common in those days than now, and as yet nobody had discovered the idea of broiled the escargots in mushroom caps. The sauteed crab fingers and sauteed shrimp were also buttery, garlicky, and satisfying.

Ro Jé strew a lot of crabmeat around, usually in the company of hollandaise. At lunch the three-dollar “Ro Jé Sandwich” was nothing but crabmeat and hollandaise–lots and lots–on an English muffin. They also made crabmeat Remick, a favorite dish of mine to this day. It’s a small casserole with a remoulade-like sauce, bacon, and lots of crabmeat. Crabmeat crepes–with hollandaise. Yum.

Good gumbo and turtle soup. Salads, as they were everywhere in the 1970s, were terrible.

Fish here was reminiscent of the way they did it at Galatoire’s, if not quite as good. Trout amandine or meuniere were inevitable, of course, both with sizzling butter and a light brown, crunchy exterior. Redfish Ro Je was–can you guess?–topped with crabmeat and hollandaise.

This was the last place I ever saw chicken Kiev in a New Orleans restaurant. The big pleasure was cutting into it and watching the gush of hot butter and parsley. Here the eating is as much or greater a pleasure, the chicken breast nicely breaded and

The veal was not the incredibly tender kind the Elmwood Plantation and Broussard’s was spoiling us with in the 1970s. But they served lots of it in dishes like veal Oscar (crabmeat and hollandaise again, white asparagus spear). The steaks were decent, and came with French sauces.

Ro Jé only over-reached itself with one dish: its rack of lamb, roasted with pastry crust and a too-liberal Rockefeller-spinach layer. It all smothered the lamb.

Desserts came flamed or not. The wine list was nothing much, but that was true of all but a handful of restaurants then.

Ro Jé began to go down when the neighborhood demographics and the restaurant business rebalanced in the 1980s. A lot of its customers were Uptowners, who had few nearby restaurants. When the gourmet bistros like Clancy’s, the Upperline and Gautreau’s began popping up in 1983, the game was over for New Orleans East eateries. Even the brilliant Gerard Crozier had to move to Metairie to survive.

Ro Jé’s owners sold the place and went into the catering business (in which they are still engaged.) The chef–a talented, personable South American guy named Leopoldo Hirsch took over under the name Poldi’s. His food was good and his prices low. but the neighborhood didn’t support him. Formal dining in the suburbs was soon to die out entirely.