Warehouse District: 325 Girod (at Commerce)
Even some of the most intrepid seekers of offbeat restaurants took one look at L’Economie and shrank back. For decades, the place was a lunchroom for workmen–and by that I mean sweaty guys from heavy-industrial operations, wearing greasy overalls. The restaurant was called “The Economy” in those days. The neighborhood was no less daunting. You didn’t go to the corner of Commerce and Girod en route to an art gallery, chic bistro or music event, but to work hard in greasy overalls. The Warehouse District was strictly a warehouse district.
But by the 1980s the area had become hip. That was due a little bit to the World’s Fair, but more to the influx of young professionals opening offices and buying condos.
And to serve these new, different customers came a French chef from Madagascar by way of Paris. Hubert Sandot had parachuted out of the upper echelons of the hotel business in 1988 to open his own place. He didn’t have much capital, but he thought that the beat-up old Economy–by then closed–was the perfect place for a highly personal, slightly eclectic café. He told me there were a hundred good cafes in Paris that looked about the same, in neighborhoods just as yeasty.
Chef Hubert’s menu dared you not to like it. It was punctuated with manifestos about, for example, the use of milk instead of cream in sauces. This was no mere posture. Hubert’s food was good. It was less rich than French cooking was elsewhere around town then. The simplicity of the fare perfectly complemented the environment and the very low prices.
His first fans were his waitstaff, who would describe each dish with a reverence just one step short of absurd. The second generation of Hubert’s adherents were the customers–typically on the young side–who liked the novelty as much as they did the food.
The great first course was mussels, which were nowhere near as common in the 1980s as they are now. They were steamed in their own juices and shells, with a little wine and herbs. Delicious, and the sauce made for a pretty good soup. Hubert smoked his own salmon on the premises. Salads were enormous piles of crisp, bitter greens with minimal dressing.
Entrees, all sent out on big white plates: Coq au vin, served as a semi-stew. A true tournedos of beef, looking like a scaled-down filet mignon, served with a different sauce every day. Smoked, grilled duck breast. Poached salmon. Grilled and sauteed fish. Not only a daily pasta offering but a rice du jour, a hearty plate in the direction of a risotto.
Hubert told me that he was lactose-intolerant, which is why he didn’t use many dairy products. It may also explain what I still remember as the worst desserts I ever encountered in a serious restaurant.
The crowd that L’Economie attracted had a certain bohemian quality, despite their jackets and ties. (A lot of people from the surrounding courthouses and law offices ate here.)
As other, more substantial restaurants opened in the Warehouse District and the novelty of the old joint petered out, Hubert looked for a new location. That would be Martinique Bistro, which lives on to this day on Magazine Street–although it’s been over a decade since Hubert sold it. Last I heard, he was running a food consultancy in Alexandria, LA.
L’Economie lived on briefly after Hubert’s departure. The food went downscale–the wrong direction. It’s empty now, but you can still see “Economy Restaurant” painted on the wall.