Tom turned 70 last February 6th, and a milestone always deserves a big celebration, even in COVID world. There was no question that we would have a party similar to the one for his 60th, meaning it would be at Antoine’s.
But after all the planning was in place, he mentioned that he would like to celebrate at Arnaud’s, which he views as a better restaurant, though Antoine’s will always have his heart.
I was taken aback by this surprise announcement, and it was too late to change plans. I knew Antoine’s would do a fabulous job for us, as they did for the 60th, so I promised Tom we would have a smaller get together at Arnaud’s after the birthday. It was quite a few weeks after the birthday, so long after that it was pointless to call it a birthday celebration. It turned out to just be just the birthday boy and the Marys. We tried to get together as a family while Jude was in town last month, but he left the day it opened for the weekend, and he could not be deterred from his plans.
Since reopening after its COVID closure, Arnaud’s has not been as vigorous in pursuing business as some of the others. Its neighbor GW Fins has been aggressive and innovative with enticements to resume life. From the very beginning we have enjoyed their ability to make lemonade from the COVID lemon.
Antoine’s, Brennan’s, Tujague’s and Broussard’s went back to business almost as usual, with their own special promotions.
Arnaud’s took their time returning, and for a long time they were only open for larger groups for private dining. Basic a la carte service has been a more recent development than for any of the others.
Which may be why our last visit to Arnaud’s was unlike any previous one. Empty dishes sat before each of us for a time elapse befitting a restaurant of far lower stature. It was pretty shocking, actually.
It was clear that they were still getting their groove back, as different regulars on the staff came to say hello. The phrase, “this is my first night, week, etc. back” explained this unusual service occurrence.
The food was better, though also not up to Arnaud’s standards. Though we are hardly familiar enough with any bar, the Ramos Gin Fizz Tom got couldn’t be improved.
We started with an order of souffle potatoes. There are several Grande Dames that serve this signature menu item around town, and these are by far the very best. Even the presentation is nonpareil. A napkin is folded in such a way as to give each potato puff its own holding pen, so they can stand up. It is quite an ample portion, with each potato crisp and greaseless and puffed just so. None were deflated or greasy. They were golden brown and utterly perfect in every way. Even the Bearnaise sauce was extra perky.
For entrees we got predictable things. Tom is obsessed with Oysters Arnaud, a sampler of the five different baked oyster dishes the restaurant offers. There are the usual suspects, of course, Rockefeller and Bienville. Alongside these two are Oysters Kathryn, named for Archie and Jane Casbarian’s daughter Katy, who now runs the restaurant with Jane and brother Archie Jr. Oyster Kathryn is the closest to the standard ubiquitous grilled oyster in flavor. These oysters are baked like the others in this dish, with Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs, but also artichokes, cream and basil to make it more interesting. Oysters Suzette has bacon and bell peppers as well as pimiento, celery and Bitters. Oysters Ohan is named for the family patriarch, Archie’s father, and it includes eggplant and andouille amidst a long list of spices. These five excellent and unusual baked oyster dishes are perched atop an extremely hot high metal bowl/plate filled with rock salt, and garnished with a lemon wedge in cheesecloth, making a presentation that suggests the excellence to unfold.
These Oysters Arnaud were so good and so long-awaited for Tom, the birthday boy got two orders.
Mary Leigh got only a bowl of chicken andouille gumbo, which she declared one of the best she had ever had. It was so dark as to be almost black, and studded with chicken and andouille surrounding a small mound of white rice. It was a generous portion for the $8.95 price.
I got what is jokingly referred to as “The Arnaud’s Happy Meal,” Shrimp Remoulade and Trout Amandine. Arnaud’s has the definitive remoulade. It is dark red and so pungent with horseradish it gets you in the throat. I prefer the inauthentic and more recent white remoulade, but it is hard to deny the excellence of this one. I always get it. In past visits the shrimp were plump, on the large side, and piled neatly on a bed of iceberg lettuce. This version had a tiny bit of greens on this plate. A more interesting pile than usual, but the shrimp looked sad, and the dish as a whole substandard to what we are used to seeing. This too is likely a COVID thing, and I hope it is back to normal next time. Despite the lowliness of shredded iceberg, it presents better than this one.
The biggest disappointment of the night was the Trout Amandine, which was smallish, greasy, and covered with a gigantic sludge of almonds in a sauce that was congealed into a mess. I wondered if anyone had noticed this leave the kitchen at this first class establishment. It didn’t taste bad, because how could Trout Amandine ever be bad? But this was just a surprise from the kitchen at Arnaud’s.
It was only fitting that the third course of the Happy Meal be brought to the birthday boy, because the bread pudding here bears Tom’s name. I am not a bread pudding fan, but Bread Pudding Fitzmorris is impossibly light and beautiful, and it really sets the standard for the local cliche dessert.
But it was not back in service at the time of this visit, because the basic bread is also not back. We were promised Bread Pudding Fitzmorris “when the bread we usually serve is again available.”
Arnaud’s serves the very best of the toasty cap bread in a white signature bag available at the Grande Dames in town, but for some COVID reason they are serving a far inferior individual roll. The regular bread is not offered by the supplier at this time. This is not the restaurant’s fault, of course, but it is a disappointment to a diner looking to savor this perfect classic New Orleans loaf.
The appearance of normalcy was everywhere - this glamorous space looked the same, its proprietor Jane as stunningly stylish as ever, but we must return and eat here again. That dinner can’t be our last meal at this fabulous classic New Orleans establishment.