Have You Cena New Place In Hammond?

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris July 09, 2020 10:58 in Dining Diary

The last time we went to the English Tea Room for lunch we were lucky they could squeeze us in. For a tea room in sleepy downtown Covington, this place is hot. When we tried to drop in yesterday, we weren’t so lucky. With the distance regulations, there just wasn’t any place for us, even with three separate patios. 

This left us with limited choices. We needed to stay close to home because the show time was approaching. We hadn’t been to Gallagher’s Grill, (the flagship of the Gallagher Group) lately. This boring ranch-style building had been many things before Gallagher’s Grill made it a hot spot. And just these last few months, Pat Gallagher made the final changes to the place, renovating a cool small bar into an elegant one. This is a lovely room, with walls covered with local memories. Pat’s dad was a beloved local coach named Hubie Gallagher, and mementos of his career celebrate his life on the walls of this room. It’s warm and sweet.

We were looking at lunch menus when Tom asked about his favorite menu item, Oysters Pablo, which is spinach, chipotle peppers, shallots, romano cheese and Tequila over oysters. They had it, and that was lunch for Tom. The burger on the menu called to me. It was ground beef tenderloin on a tidy bun that at first glance looked like a pretzel bread, but was too soft and more mildly-flavored than that. It was a good bun for a burger. This was served in the classic way with slices of iceberg lettuce, tomato and purple onion, as well as kosher dill pickle wedges. Alongside the burger was a pile of ordinary frozen and battered fries, but a good version of that. They were crisp and hot and perfectly fine. The burger was tender and thick, cooked exactly as I had asked. This was a fine burger plate.

This was a great, quick lunch for $35.We got back into the car before the heavens broke loose.

After the show Wednesday we headed to Hammond to try a restaurant we had heard quite a bit about. Cena is located on the corner of Cate St. and Hwy 190 in Hammond, with an absurdly easy-to-remember address: 123 Cate St.

It has been open a little over a year and owned by the former general manager of the excellent Jacmel Inn a few blocks away. Any association with Jacmel Inn is an impressive credential for any restaurant, so we expected a lot here.

It’s a hip environment, nothing flashy, just 2020 modern. Dark walls, gray floor and lots of windows. Service is friendly and competent, and the food is good but not as good as one expects. Housemade pasta raises the level of expectation. No one needs to do that in Hammond.

We started with a generous bread service. A long plate of thick toasted bread slices with the requisite Italian restaurant oil and balsamic presentation. Turtle soup, yes, real turtle soup was the first actual course. Tom was delighted by this. I got meatballs, which came atop a base of creamy and delicious polenta. The meatballs were small, which was a preferable size to me, and they were just a touch too firm for my taste, but not offensively so. There was not enough red sauce in this dish, but again, not really an important failing. 

Tom’s next course was scallops, which were not very big but also not very expensive. Very fine quality Tom observed, though he thought they would have benefitted with a bit more scorching. This too pleased Tom greatly. They had a garnish of a fried onion ring on each, and were served over a bed of corn in brown butter and basil oil.

Two pastas came to the table. One was Bolognese cannelloni. Thin sheets of beautifully made pasta enveloped a pleasing filling of ground meat and cheese. These two large rolls of thin pasta sat on a bed of deep crimson- dark red sauce that almost resembled straight tomato paste. This was served with two isosceles triangles of buttered ciabatta. We also had pasta carbonara on the table. The handmade pasta itself was definitely the most interesting thing about the dish. There were bits of thick bacon or lardons and peas in a cream sauce with some unusual herbs. This was just okay, and it is something for me to say that about any carbonara. The pasta was sort of kinked, which did give an extra dimension to the dish. I’m not sure that was intentional.

The most peculiar thing about this meal was the house-made french fries. I don’t know why we got these at an Italian restaurant, except I am always looking for the perfect version of these, and Tom now thinks of french fries as playing the role of bread service. Housemade is the new term we know to look for, at least until tonight. It’s sort of a game with me to spot the plunker - fries that are deceptively not house-cut. I was assured by the waitress that someone was cutting them in the back. When they came to the table I would definitely not bet that they were anything but a frozen fry. Everything about them looked that way. When the chef came over to say hi, I asked him again directly about cutting them in the back. His reply shocked me. He does cut them in house, then they go into the freezer. Huh?

Fresh cut fries are an anomaly because they are very labor intensive and therefore something to tout if you are going the extra step. Most restaurants mean to do it and it doesn’t last long, because I hear that they are frankly a nightmare to keep up. To have a chef tell me that he is going the extra step to do it, then to freeze it is simply hilarious. Maybe a good frozen fry is more expensive than this? Whatever the reason, this was not the answer I expected, and one I’m sure I’m not likely to hear again.

There isn’t anything wrong with Cena. The food is nothing spectacular, and therein lies the problem. The website looks glamorous and delicious, with locally sourced ingredients and homemade everything. This makes for high expectations. Tom has often said that dining experiences depend an awful lot on the expectations going in. A great restaurant becomes a disappointment if you are expecting a spectacular one. And  a mediocre one can seem pretty great if you are expecting a bad one. Cena is a good restaurant that seemed like a great one, and that is the only thing that was wrong with it.

But Hammond, Louisiana is not a place replete with gourmet restaurants. And applause is due to anyone taking these extra steps. Cena is a promising addition to the Hammond dining scene. It’s definitely worth a visit to go see for yourself.