We’ve had Chef Eric Cook on the show a few times, and it’s always fun. Before we knew him, we knew he had excellent taste. We’ve loved Gris Gris from the moment we stepped inside, so it was great news to hear he was opening a new place in the French Quarter, in the utterly unique space that was Maximo’s. When I spoke to Eric about the new place, called St. John, my interest turned to excitement.
He explained the name of the place, a sentimental nod to Bayou St. John, where he met his wife. But it was his description of the food that thrilled me. One of my favorite soapboxes is the way the culinary culture of New Orleans is being eroded by young transplants who arrived from places with no distinctive culinary traditions. He hinted at that rather than put it as bluntly as I would.
The menu at St. John represents what he calls the traditional dishes which he worries are on their way to extinction. Or, as I would put it, dishes that have been bastardized beyond recognition. He talked about having a true Chicken Clemenceau on the menu, and how proud he was to offer it.
But it was when he talked about the Oyster Pattie that I knew I had to get over there pronto. Pronto turned out to be months later, and luckily, I was there the last week he offered lunch.
The place is stunning, everything I had heard about it, and more. It’s a very linear space that has two rooms, a long bar with a few tables, and a deeper space that is a kitchen with a food bar and a row of booths. Unlike most food bars that allow viewing of cooking, this bar is at cooking height. A guest could almost stir pots. I learned a lot about how a kitchen at this level works. And I had a long chat with Darren, who crafted the menu with Eric, using a lot of his grandmother’s recipes, including the aforementioned Chicken Clemenceau. Darren grew up in Covington, lived in Metairie, moved to New York, and is now back in the French Quarter, happily honoring local culinary traditions behind the line at St. John. I got to see some of those traditions, watching a handful of butter from an under-counter drawer get dropped into each entree. (Relax, it’s what makes our food so special!)
I was alone, but I ordered for two as if Tom was along. I started with the signature dish, the Oyster Pattie. And I couldn’t resist the deviled crab, which I am compelled to order any place it’s on the menu. I continually search for the stuffed crab of my youth at the West End, which in no way resembles anything on the market today other than the Blue Crab. Deanie’s began the slide up for stuffed crabs. Not up in goodness but in size, to where all stuffing is literally stuffed into the crab shell, a mound of stuffing looking like a softball landed. Looks ridiculous, and tastes that way too. There are far too many versions of this devolution of a classic New Orleans dish. Too bad.
For entrees, I ordered the Chicken Clemenceau and pork belly cassoulet. Cassoulet is rarely seen in these parts, and not much outside its native Provence, but it is the ultimate comfort food. A French peasant dish made with beans and usually some form of duck, it is slow-cooked until the meat is braised into confit or debris, and the beans are creamy and luscious. I absolutely love this dish. Here it was served with seared pork belly rather than duck.
When the appetizers arrived I saw immediately why the signature oyster pattie is a hit. It is a large dish, comprised of three components. Menu items like this used to be called “ A Study In …something, and segments of the dish were three different ways a protein, usually crawfish or shrimp, was used.
Here was a handful of delicately fried oysters, crispy and greaseless, placed atop a creamy sauce with poached oysters, surrounding a large vol-au-vent that contained an oyster dressing. The vol-au-vent was toasted beautifully. This was a beautiful dish that arrived at the table and no doubt excited its recipient.
I know I was.
The fried oysters were perfect, the cream sauce delicious with plump oysters flavored with oyster water, and the dressing a very nice consistency of density and moisture, with a good oyster flavor. All New Orleans cooks who had ever made oyster patties would be proud.
I was far less impressed with the equally beautiful deviled crab, which sat atop a pile of interesting greens in a cane vinaigrette. This was a surprise, and not a good one. There didn’t seem to be a lot of crab in this dish, and I found the filling sort of too wet for my taste.
The cane sugar vinaigrette sounded like a great idea, but it was too sweet for me.
This was the only misstep I had. While I waited for the entrees, I noticed quite a lot of work going into housemade fries, something I tend to obsess about. If a restaurant is doing fries that are cut in-house, they are taking a lot of extra pains toward excellence. I enjoyed watching them fry the fries, toss them in seasoning in a bowl, and plate them.
When I asked about this, Darren told me that, yes, they are cutting them in-house, but then they are frozen before frying. I have heard of this not a lot but not a little either, and I wonder about the trouble gone through to present what is ultimately a frozen fry. Why not just let Simplot do it for you? As I waited for the fries I added to my order, Darren confessed that his favorite snack is a pile of these fries with their unusual and unusually good Caesar dressing. He put some next to my pile of crispy fries.
I was not as crazy about the dressing as he was, but the pile of fries was quite pleasing. The dusting of Creole seasoning was salty and spicy and very good. I used the remoulade sauce that came with the deviled crab for dipping, and some ketchup.
The entrees were my favorite course. The cassoulet was exactly what I had hoped for, with the hunk of pork belly done just so, its ribbons of fat a nice complement to the layers of meat. The beans were cooked perfectly, still holding their shape but creamy enough to make them silky. This dish had tremendous flavor.
Since I was bringing the Chicken Clemenceau to Tom I only sampled it, but this Creole classic was done classically, with a very modern twist. Very much like a stew, the components of the dish came together nicely, small chunks of potatoes and peas and mushrooms simmered in a sauce that was thick and light brown. What modernized the dish to hipness was the seared, deboned, and pounded chicken thigh with skin on. I would have preferred the traditional version of this, but it still had a great flavor. And points to Eric Cook for even offering it.
From where I sat at the food bar, I was right next to dishes expediting. I got a good look at a shrimp poor boy and a club sandwich and a few salads, all of which made me promise myself a return visit. And I’ll try a little harder to get Tom in there. He would have loved seeing this best version of the space that has been so many things, and mostly, he would love Eric Cook’s interpretation of some of his favorite food ever, classic New Orleans fare.