Garden District: Pontchartrain Hotel, 2031 St. Charles Ave.
For most of the history of New Orleans dining, only a few hotel restaurants had a serious local clientele. Of them, the most revered was the Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel.
Created by Lysle Aschaffenberg–the hotel’s founder, world traveler, and dedicated gourmet–the C-Room was one of the handsomest, most comfortable, and most romantic restaurants in town. The rooms had a soft glow, a color scheme of plush pink among walls of rich wood paneling that went a long way up to the ceiling. A fountain splashed in the center of the main room, and you could hear it, so quiet was the environment. Everything about the place spoke of luxury in the old manner.
The Caribbean Room’s two long-time chefs were legendary practitioners of Creole cooking. Nathaniel Burton and his successor and protégé Louis Evans were unusual in having celebrity status in a time when few African-American chefs were known at all. They were encouraged by Aschaffenberg and his son Albert to maintain an unambiguously Creole flavor, and they did. At the same time, they also prepared a number of classic French dishes (one of which, trout Veronique, became the house specialty) and other dishes that Aschaffenberg found in his travels.
My favorite dish at the Pontchartrain (the hotel’s name was synonymous with that of the restaurant) was crabmeat Remick, made with bacon, mustard, and chili sauce in an au gratin sort of way. They also made a great fish-with-everything (oysters, crab, and shrimp) dish called trout Eugene.
The two most famous dishes at the C-Room however, were both sweets. The first was the blueberry muffins that came in the bread basket. Those were so popular that they should have been on the hotel’s crest. They were also much liked in the Pontchartrain’s coffee shop at breakfast.
The other signature was mile-high ice cream pie, now widely copied by other restaurants. It had vanilla, chocolate, and peppermint ice cream in layers, with a meringue on top and chocolate sauce all around. It was designed to be split by at least two people. In my early twenties I somehow managed to eat an entire slice of it. “My God!” said the waiter. “Do you know what we do to anyone who eats a whole piece of mile-high pie?” What? I asked. “We give you another slice on the house!”
For years, the Caribbean Room was famous for its Sunday night buffets. That style of dinner service was almost unheard of in New Orleans. It was popular but–as all the regulars knew–not as good as the regular menu.
Service at the Caribbean Room was orchestrated by its incomparable maitre d’, Douglas Leman. Douglas (many longtime customers never knew his last name) was the apotheosis of hospitality and style, always ready with an effusive gratefulness for the customers for just showing up. Douglas was at the front door of the Caribbean Room for most of his adult life. It seemed to me that his death was the final nail in the coffin of the Caribbean Room. The earlier demise of Chef Louis Evans didn’t help.
The restaurant was already fading when the Aschaffenbergs sold the hotel in 1987. The new owners cut back the C-Room to a third of its former size, and the handwriting was on the wall. When it finally closed, few people noticed, so marginal had the restaurant become.
The Caribbean Room figured in many high moments in people’s lives and the history of New Orleans dining. I have one myself: my first date with my wife Mary Ann was at the Caribbean Room, as Douglas smiled on.