Gretna: 1000 Behrman Highway
The best French restaurant ever to open in New Orleans was in a location so unlikely that it wasn’t taken seriously until it was too late.
Not that it mattered a lot.
Le Chateau was the creation of Denis Rety and his wife Annick. Both were born in Brittany. Before they came to town, they had an immensely successful restaurant called La Belle Epoque in Bay Harbor Islands, near Miami. A major public relations problem brought them to Gretna. A customer not satisfied with the way the restaurant handled his complaint created a scene. A man at an adjoining table decided to get involved, and wound up running a public campaign against the chef for alleged anti-Semitic remarks. La Belle Epoque was in a largely Jewish community, and that rumor–later proved false–was devastating. The restaurant had to close, and the Retys left town.
Le Chateau opened and closed in New Orleans without that story’s ever coming to light. I never heard it until long afterwards. All I knew was that this middle-aged French chef was running the kind of French restaurant you’d expect to find in Manhattan or France itself.
The degree to which that was true can be measured by how I heard about Le Chateau. It wasn’t from the usual network of avid gourmets, but from other French-born chefs. They were knocked out by this guy. When they asked him how he made such perfect puff pastry in house, or demi-glace, or soufflees of everything, his answer usually was to hold his arms in front of him and say, “I make it with my hands!” Which was a fact.
The menu was a catalog of Escoffier-style French classics, and included a lot of foodstuffs that were very exotic in New Orleans. Mussels, for example, which nobody cooked here in 1983. Sweetbreads in a vol-au-vent whose pastry was so good that you ate all of it, instead of using it only as a container. Pheasant Souvaroff, the rich-tasting bird stuffed with hand-made foie gras mousse. That remains a candidate for the Best Dish of My Life So Far.
Le Chateau didn’t look like much on the outside, but the dining room was bright and handsome. Silver trolleys rolled up to your table so Annick Rety–whose skills in the dining room were flawless–could finish the preparation before your eyes. She boned out whole Dover sole, carved chateaubriands or ducks, flamed crepes suzette.
But the best thing she and her husband did was serve hot dessert soufflees. Nowhere have I had better. They were big and airy, and a variety of sauces made to order to match the main flavor.
Chef Denis brought an amazing wine collection with him to New Orleans. He had a few pages of very old Bordeaux, including an 1887 Chateau Lafite and a 1900 Chateau Latour. When Denis came to the end of his short New Orleans run, he invited me and a few other regular customers to open those two and a few others. I still have the hand-blown 1887 bottle on a shelf right next to where I’m writing these words.
Chef Denis shut down his magnificent Gretna restaurant when he won the lawsuit against his defamer. The first judgement was $33 million. It wound up on appeal bring reduced to $5 million, but that was enough for him to be able to end his exile, and spend the rest of his life raising horses. His son-in-law, who had cooked with him for some time, took over Le Chateau, but that didn’t last long. The locals couldn’t exactly figure out how a French restaurant could get by without trout amandine and oysters Bienville.
You can’t find a restaurant like Le Chateau even in New York anymore.