Chicory Farm Cafe
Uptown: 723 Hillary (just off Maple)
Vegetarian dining these days is no longer on the fringe. Although the percentage of diners who follow that diet is still small, concerns about what we eat makes most of us emphasize grains and vegetables in our meals more than we once did. And we all have friends who have made the switch to meatless eating. We can't just stop going out with them.
In New Orleans, the community of vegetarian restaurants is as it has been since the first ones appeared in the 1970s: small and dreary. It's still a mistake to seek out full-vegetarian menus, unless everybody in the party considers deliciousness less important than maintaining their regimes. All the growth in vegetarian possibilities has come from the mainstream restaurants, almost all of which now have either vegetarian specialties on the menu, or a willingness to cook special vegetarian dishes for those who ask for them.
When Chicory Farm Café opened in the mid-1990s on the Maple Street strip, I thought the day of fine vegetarian dining had come. Its entire menu was both a) vegetarian and 2) at the gourmet level in both ingredients and techniques. In fact, any of the dishes it served could have been presented in the city's best restaurants, with flavors fine enough to satisfy all but the most closed-minded carnivores.
Chicory Farm really was a farm, located in the upper reaches of the Florida parishes near the town of Mount Hermon. There they raise cows, goats, and sheep for milk. The milk never left the farm, so it was not required to be pasteurized. What they did with it was make cheeses.
It’s no big deal to make fresh cheese. Quite a few restaurants do so, notably Italian and Indian one. But it is challenging is to make aged cheeses like Roquefort, Brie, or Parmigiano Reggiano. Those usually involve not merely storing the cheeses in appropriate conditions of humidity and temperature for months, but allowing the various molds that give the great cheeses of the world their character to form.
Those molds occurred naturally at Chicory Farm, and gave the cheeses a distinctive pallette of flavors. The cheeses bore the names of civil Louisiana parishes. The best were Catahoula and Orleans, both well aged indeed and on the verge of stinky (which I love). The cheeses were a big hit among New Orleans chefs.
Chicory Farm also raised mushrooms and fresh vegetables, all of which made its way onto the Cafe's menu. Mushrooms--the vegetarian’s favorite meat substitute--were all over the menu, and brilliantly used. Shiitakes form the core of a Rockefeller-style mini-casserole. Roasted mushrooms, sherry and herbs were wrapped in pastry and baked. They made a great pate of wild mushrooms.
Best of all, Chicory Farm's menu incorporated the taste of New Orleans. For example, they made gumbo z’herbes--the only one I ever had that followed the meatless tradition completely. Green vegetables and vegetable broth--that was it. Yet it had a sharpness from the onions and bitterness from the greens, all of which added up to a great flavor.
The most interesting entree was grillades and grits, a Creole classic. It started with smoked portobello mushrooms, cooked down with a brown sauce made from vegetable stocks. It went over the top of creamy grits studded with green onions and herbs. Very, very good. They also made a credible shepherd’s pie with layers of mashed potatoes, cheese, and caramelized vegetables held together by a smoked tomato sauce. The Creole bouillabaisse of vegetables, popcorn rice, and saffron.
Of course, there were many salads. In addition to the namesake green (chicory, famous for its roots' use in our coffee, is related closely to endives), there were more different leaves than I could count. This was before the advent of bagged spring mix in supermarkets, so it seemed special. More substantial salads are made with yams, potatoes, and bell peppers, and with celery root and leeks. And cheeses, of course.
The desserts were more familiar. (This was long before some idiot somewhere decided that bacon and chocolate went well together.) I remember a great frozen soufflee roughened up with amaretto cookies.
Every other part of fine dining was here: effective service, a wine list, pleasant surroundings in a well-renovated cottage.
Chicory Farm Café had one big problem. It was waaaay ahead of its time. It was only rarely busy. Not enough vegetarians yet, and most of those were not the fine-dining type. And since vegetarian dishes are by their nature much less expensive than those with, say, a big wonk of prime beef, the check averages were lower. Which meant smaller tips, and ultimately few good servers. Too soon, the place disappeared.
So did the farm itself. I lament the loss of those cheeses even more than that of the restaurant. But Chicory Farm led the way for other North Shore farmers like Smith's Creamery, Mauthe's, Covey Rise, and Chappapeela Farms to get the idea that gourmet dairy and vegetables might be a good business.
Over 125 more reminiscences of extinct restaurants can be found here.