Tom Fitzmorris January 04, 2011 16:32
Gretna: 636 Franklin Street
So many superlatives apply to Chef Warren Leruth and his namesake restaurant that it's hard to know where to start. But this should work: LeRuth's was the most delicious New Orleans restaurant of all time.
Leruth (he capitalized the "R" in the restaurant's name, but not his own) began cooking in the military, as a baker. He kept his baker's habits all his life. LeRuth's always baked its own French bread, at a time when nobody else did that.
His baker's sensibilities carried over into all his recipes. While most cooks of savory dishes approximate ingredients and cooking times, bakers must measure and time everything exactly. Leruth added ingredients by weight—a degree of exactitude I've never seen since in any restaurant. It did wonders for the consistent flavor of the restaurant's food.
LeRuth's milieu was inauspicious. It was an ordinary raised house in a middle-class Gretna neighborhood that was on its way down. To get there, you had to drive through the notorious Fischer Housing Project. Despite that. LeRuth's in its prime years (which was most of them) was always full. Getting a reservation required calling weeks in advance.
Some of that success had to do with lucky timing. When LeRuth's opened in 1966, most of the grand restaurants of New Orleans were coasting on menus that were essentially interchangeable. Nobody was doing anything new.
LeRuth's was ready when a new dynamic entered the restaurant community. In the summer of 1970, Richard Collin published The New Orleans Underground Gourmet, the first rated restaurant guide in the city's history. Its influence on the dining habits of New Orleanians was incalculable.
And the Underground Gourmet said in no uncertain terms that LeRuth's was the best restaurant in town.
LeRuth's food lived up to the accolade. It was based on two sources: restaurants in France that Leruth admired, and Galatoire's. Dinner was a five-course table d'hote repast. These were not tasting portions. When you went to LeRuth's, you needed to be ready for a big, lengthy meal.
The famous appetizer was crabmeat St. Francis, a baked ramekin of crabmeat with a rich, peppery sauce. (It was so good that when Leruth closed the restaurant, he said his greatest regret was that he wouldn't be able to eat crabmeat St. Francis anytime he wanted.) They also made good baked oysters, shrimp remoulade, escargots Bourguignonne, and a couple of other items.
Leruth invented oyster-artichoke soup. He called it potage LeRuth, and it was always on the menu. It was one of only two dishes there that would be widely copied by other restaurants, and is now such a universal classic that it's hard to imagine a time when it wasn't around. Leruth's version had no cream, just a good oyster stock with recently-added oysters, chunky artichokes, herbs.
An interesting measure of how far we've come is that potage LeRuth always was made with canned artichokes and dried herbs. Such ingredients would be unthinkable in a deluxe restaurant now.
Next came a salad with avocado dressing. That was a derivative of the Green Goddess dressing Leruth had developed for the Seven Seas label, and it was as wonderful as it was unique.
The second LeRuth's dish to be adopted by many other restaurants was a big fried soft-shell crab, topped with crabmeat and brown butter. I can remember what Richard Collin said about it without checking: "It defies description and approaches apotheosis." Crab on crab? But why not?
That was great, but to my palate the most memorable entree was canard ferme freres LeRuth. (All the dish names at Lertuh's were in French.) This was a rustic French and Cajun fusion dish, a half duck roasted just right, served atop a smoky stuffing of oysters, herbs, and sausage—a sort of advanced dirty rice—and topped with a peppercorn sauce.
In contrast all this Frenchness was the "Chef's Steak." It was almost certainly the best steak being served anywhere in New Orleans, a twenty-four-ounce prime aged sirloin strip, roasted to crustiness and bulging with juiciness, served in sizzling butter. The chef really did like that, and when someone ordered it his face beamed. "When an order comes in for that, I keep my eye on it personally," Leruth told me. If you got the chef's steak, the only other thing you got was a salad. The chef wanted you to give your entire appetite over to that steak.
Other great dishes included a magnificent stuffed trout; tiny frog legs with butter and garlic; a rack of lamb with fried parsley; sweetbreads meuniere. Leruth claimed to be the first chef in town to use Plume de Veau baby white veal, and every night he made up a new dish in which he used it. Chef Frank Brigtsen, who knew Leruth well, keeps that tradition alive at his restaurant.)
If there was one thing to complain about at LeRuth's, it was that every entree came out with the same two side dishes. Pommes dauphines (rich nuggets of mashed potatoes bound with a little egg and cream, then fried) and bananas au four (underripe, starchy bananas baked till soft) were on every plate. The issue didn't come up often, because few customers dined at LeRuth's frequently.
That wasn't because of the expense. LeRuth's was a bargain, really considering the extent of the dinner. It was just that hard to get a reservation.
And, besides, Leruth did not like complainers. Even mild criticisms were not suffered gladly. Letters expressing displeasure got a scathing reply, written by an anonymous customer (I think I know who), the import of which was that clearly the complainer must be a moron to find fault with LeRuth's.
The response could be worse. LeRuth's had a strategy for real troublemakers. The chef would step up to the table as four waiters moved to each corner of it. On a signal, each one would grab his corner of the tablecloth and lift it, with all the plates, wine bottles, water glasses, food, flowers and everything falling into the center of what was now a large, leaking sack. "I've picked up your check," said the chef. "Get out of my restaurant!" The usual response from the rest of the room was applause.
The wait staff could be asked to do something as outrageous as that because they were totally beholden to the chef. Most of the waiters were the kind you'd find at Galatoire's—from which, in fact, a few of them had come. Gilbert LaFleur and Homer Fontenot were most noteworthy among those. Gilbert ultimately became LeRuth's maitre d'.
Leruth demanded precision from his staff. He lined up the waiters daily to inspect fingernails, shoe shines, and oral hygiene. When one of them objected to this military-like inspection, Leruth told him, "Look. I'm giving you fifteen percent of my gross. You want that, you do it my way!"
The dessert menu was as simple. A centerpiece of LeRuth's offerings was his French vanilla ice cream, made with over twenty-five percent milkfat. It was incredibly rich, far more so than any of the premium brands out there now. Leruth made it himself, to the point of manufacturing his own vanilla. (He created four variations of vanilla extract, later selling the formula to Ron Sciortino, who still sells it under his Ronald Reginald's brand. It's the best vanilla out there.)
My favorite of LeRuth's desserts was the macaroon bread pudding. He made that with coconut, his Melipone (Mexican-style) vanilla, an enough eggs to make it incomparably light. A big pan of it sat on a sideboard in the dining room; it was served at room temperature, without a sauce, and was still the best bread pudding in town.
The wine cellar—which was actually in the attic—was not equallyed locally for a long time. At its peak, it held over 30,000 bottles, including some very great ones. It did not start that way, however. In the restaurant's early years, Leruth struck up a lifelong friendship with David Martin, the founder of Martin Wine Cellar. A few times a week, Leruth asked to have a few bottles of an assortment of wines that interested him delivered to the restaurant.
"I kept sending my driver way over there with those little deliveries," Dave Martin said. "I was just about to tell him, 'Warren, I like you a lot, but I can't keep doing this.' Then he called me and said, 'I found the wine I want. Send me two hundred cases.' From then on, he was one of my best customers."
That wine was a Puligny-Montrachet which, along with an Aloxe-Corton, became the house wines of the restaurant (at under $10 a bottle!). But the wine I remember best at LeRuth's was Chateau Latour 1970, which was served with roast beef poor boys one Monday evening in the summer of 1975. The occasion was the publication of Richard Collin's "The New Orleans Cookbook," which Collin wrote with his wife Rima. "The best food in the world and the best wine in the world!" said Collin at the party.
The Latour flowed like water that night. I don't know, but I suspect that Leruth underwrote that. Because, as much an ogre as the earlier stories may make him appear, he was a genuinely likeable man, a lover of living well, laughing most of the time, and often startlingly generous. He founded the Chef's Charity For Children, the first local event in which chefs got together to cook and raise money for a worthy cause, still a sellout every year. When Dave Martin remodeled his deli at Martin Wine Cellar, Leruth sent over a new professional stove of the kind he thought the place ought to have. Martin hardly needed a donation, but to Leruth a friend was a friend.
LeRuth's rolled merrily along into the 1980s, installing along the way the first requirement of a deposit for a reservation ever seen in New Orleans. Leruth's sons Lee and Larry, who'd worked in the kitchen throughout their childhood, joined their father in the kitchen full-time.
Leruth renovated the restaurant in the 1980s, greatly upgrading creature comforts. He replaced the old workhorse china with beautiful bone china and heavy, unique silverware. He bought a substantial collection of art, including an original Picasso. Nice new chairs came in, and with them, something new: pillows for the ladies' feet. (Sometimes when the waiters reached down to position these, the ladies reacted with alarm.) The menu grew a little bit, too, the new dishes seeming to have been there all along.
Then he opened a second restaurant. LeRuth's Other Place was in a renovated house across the side street from LeRuth's. It had an Italian tilt, using the best ingredients (it was the first restaurant I remember making a point of serving Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses). The food was very good, the prices were modest, the service informal, and with all the traffic that LeRuth's generated Leruth figured he could make a bundle here on his overflow alone.
He figured wrong. LeRuth's Other Place went nowhere. Or maybe the story was that it was already nowhere and stayed there. You had to have a really good reason to go to that part of Gretna, and the Other Place wasn't reason enough. It closed before a year had passed since its opening.
Meanwhile, the center of gravity in the New Orleans restaurant business had shifted. The Uptown gourmet bistros were pulling a lot of business away from LeRuth's and other outlying restaurants. Then came a sudden shrinkage in the local oil industry. That hit the West Bank hard, and within a few years most of the great restaurants there had closed.
And the old man wanted to move on to other projects. He was heavily involved with Al Copeland's restaurants (he created the biscuits for Popeyes, among other dishes), and he had consulting gigs all over the place. He sold his restaurant to his sons Lee and Larry. Both were excellent chefs who had apprenticed all their lives to the master. And LeRuth's recipes were so exact that it wasn't hard to keep the quality level up. LeRuth's continued to do very well. Lee told me in 1985 that LeRuth's was putting a million dollars a year profit into his pocket. That was serious money for a freestanding restaurant in a secondary location back then.
But the brothers had personal problems. Larry dropped out for awhile. Lee opened a second restaurant, Torey's, in the French Quarter (it was where Bayona is now). He told me that it was going to be a restaurant purely of his own creations. None of his dad's food was on the menu. This mystified diners. Torey's did not do well, and Lee's frustration with that took him to the breaking point. One evening a diner asked to talk to him. The diner wanted to compliment the chef, but Lee had had a rough day, and thought it was another complainer. After giving the man a piece of his mind, Lee stormed out of the restaurant and went home.
What happened there is called an accident by the Leruth family. Lee Leruth, alone in the house, was killed by a bullet from his own gun. He was still in his twenties.
Warren Leruth took over the restaurant again. He brought in a chef de cuisine and got the place back up to speed, even though Leruth wasn't always on site. The customers and wait staff were much relieved.
But the momentum was gone. LeRuth's lasted only two more years. Then Leruth sold everything but the name at an auction: wine, china, artwork, everything. A lot of that is still circulating in local restaurants and private cellars.
Leruth kept on working. I saw him once a year at Manresa Retreat House until he died in 2005. He was the same smiling, optimistic, brilliant guy, with a million projects and even more opinions. I loved hearing his insights. My favorite: At one of the silent Manresa breakfasts, he passed me a little note under the table."Too much baking soda in the biscuits!" it said. Things like that were obvious to his astonishingly keen palate and encyclopedic knowledge of cooking.
One project that all his fans wished he would undertake was never done. Leruth wrote two small cookbooks, neither of which had much of the restaurant's food in it. But he never wrote a book of his serious recipes, the ones that made LeRuth's great. Larry Leruth still has the recipes. Maybe someday he'll put them into a LeRuth's cookbook at last.
In its relatively short history, LeRuth's left behind many memories of a golden chapter in the annals New Orleans dining. It was the first serious chef-owned restaurant in New Orleans, and set the standard for all the ones that would follow.
It also left a charming building in its wake, one which was home to a number of restaurants after the LeRuth's era ended. But now even that is gone. A fire burned over half of it to the ground around the time of Hurricane Isaac in 2012. It's all memories now.