Gretna: 2505 Whitney Ave., Gretna
The reputation of Warren Leruth is that he was the most skillful chef in the history of New Orleans. Whether or not that’s true, he was ahead of his time. The people who worked for him went forth and multiplied. But the influence of his and their cookery never reached the levels to which Paul Prudhomme, Emeril, and John Besh enriched their former employees. For one thing, they seemed to have the idea that part of being a true disciple of Leruth involved opening a restaurant on the West Bank.
Leruth owned the 2505 Whitney Avenue building, and never used it for any of his own projects. But a number of good to great chefs operated the place for many years. The first of these was Willy Coln’s, which was the best German restaurant in New Orleans from the time it opened (1976) to its closing (1985). The most recent restaurant there was Clementine’s, a great Belgian restaurant in in the early 2000s.
Not diners recall Chez Pierre’s, probably because it wasn’t around long enough. It was managed by Perry Fusilier, who for many years was the maitre d’ at LeRuth’s. As chef-owner in his own place,he took quite a bit of his culinary inspiration from LeRuth’s. But Perry’s Cajun background was clearly visible on the menu. At very attractive Cajun-style prices, Chez Pierre’s cooked ambitious, delicious food. This was especially true at lunch and in the early evening, at which times one wonders whether the restaurant’s food costs were being covered.
The best first courses were small casseroles of seafood. Crabmeat St. Pierre is served in a shell with a light-colored, herbal sauce echoing with pepper. (It was a reworking of LeRuth’s signature crabmeat St. Francis.) Oysters casino were original: oysters broiled with bacon and jalapeno chips, mellowed with mozzarella.
Chef Perry (he seemed to prefer working in the kitchen than in the dining room) put out a superb, cold, tart shrimp remoulade and a fine Godchaux salad—crabmeat and shrimp in a light mayonnaise, tossed with greens. Soups were Cajun, with dense, dark, smoky chicken-andouille gumbo and the like. Artichoke-oyster soup (another Leruth invention) was choked with oysters in a beguiling, herbal, light broth.
Entrees at Chez Pierre’s were so rich that they could be difficult to finish. Lots of dishes topped with seafood in rich sauces. This also turned up in the steak cookery. Sirloin steak au poivre, with its creamy green peppercorn sauce, was the best of its gind in those days. Duckling St. Gabriel, stuffed with oyster dressing and moistened with another peppercorn sauce–another close copy of a dish at LeRuth’s.
Desserts include homemade ice cream with just about the highest butterfat content I’ve ever encountered, as well as a great sweet potato and pecan pie. The wine list is minimal The premises are a collection of white stucco rooms— a bit on the stark side, but not unpleasant. Service, strangely enough, was not what you could call polished. But the place was in Gretna, at a time when the oil bust made the restaurant economy in the West Bank a shadow of what it had been. Chez Pierre was one of the most regretted losses.
Perry retired after a few years, but his son still is in the business. Last time I saw him, he was managing Ruth’s Chris in Metairie.