Revisiting The Past

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris June 06, 2022 11:00 in Dining Diary

Some scuttlebutt has come our way about Tujague’s. It is alarming scuttlebutt for a place so tradition-invested as New Orleans. The rumor is that Tujague’s has lost the Tujague.

Tujague’s is the second oldest of the Grand Dames, but it has never been all that grand. Sitting in a dumpy little space deep in the French Quarter on Decatur near the French Market, it appealed to people like Tom, who have a penchant for old-fashioned restaurants, and will forgive anything to eat there.

I remember a family dinner to celebrate Tom’s mother’s 100th birthday, though she had been deceased 14 years before that. He did the same thing for his deceased father on his 100th birthday. It’s a good excuse to get the family together. 

Tom’s nephew was in town with his family and we all sat in the back room. The youngest member of the group, a ten-year-old, observed rather loudly upon walking in, “It stinks in here!” He was roundly shooshed, but no one countered his statement. 

I don’t even remember the food that evening, but I do remember the dismal surroundings. Those dismal surroundings didn’t remain long. Mark Latter, (son of Steve Latter, who ran it until his untimely death) undertook a complete renovation, including the second floor.

The place looked the same, retaining the same character of the original, though polished, less raffish. The food was the same.

The late Steve Latter’s brother was the landlord of the building until he sold it to someone with T-shirt shops. When the lease came up for renewal, well you know the rest…The familiar astronomic increase in rent that closes so many restaurants forced this very old one to move down the street. (The greedy landlord is sitting on a still-empty building.)

Tujague’s relocated to an enormous building vacated by a large chain called Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. I can’t imagine that the price of the rent for the larger, better-located space was cheaper than what the crazy new landlord wanted to charge in the original space, so maybe the moving idea was appealing to Mark and his wife, who run a number of restaurants together.

The “new” Tujague’s is an arrestingly faithful representation of the original. Great pains were taken to move all the geegaw from the walls and all the photos of famous patrons. The little bottle collections line the walls downstairs, with photos upstairs in the private rooms. Beneath the kitsch, the restaurant is beautiful. The tile floors are there, and the walls in some dining rooms bear the signature green. Upstairs, bold wallpaper makes a glamorous statement. There is a small courtyard out back. This space also features a prominent bar in the entrance. Very well done.

It is one wall of the bar that best tells the story of the new Tujague’s circa 2022. It’s a wall of fake green ground cover with a pink neon script Tujague’s. People of a certain age will just think it’s a cool wall, but the new target market will instantly recognize this wall as the photo op for INSTAGRAM!! 

On our last visit to Tujague’s we shared a dining room with this latter group. There were two large tables of 12, each celebrating what appeared to be wedding festivities. The room was indeed abuzz with the kind of excitement such a life event generates, and I was happy to be an observer. Tom complained about the noise.

One group was mixed family members, the other appeared to be a bridal party of women who spent as much time posing and photographing themselves as they did chatting or eating. 

This is the new Tujague’s patron. Step aside, Tom and your ilk. There is no Chicken Bonne Femme here, no more beef brisket chunk with sauce schmear, and the Table D’Hote is there in name only.

Is that a bad thing though? A business is in business to stay in business. And the restaurant business is a tough one. Choices must be made. And the choice that has been made here is to court the younger crowd, who are not likely to order a hunk of beef brisket because that was the way it was in 1850. They don’t care about anything before 2010. Now it’s crispy pork belly, because it’s 2022.

An adorable couple at the next table when we last visited had a hamburger each. And you know what? I was jealous because it looked like a great hamburger. It was accompanied by a pile of great looking fries. They looked quite pleased with their choice.

I was more interested in watching the antics of the Gen Z crowd at a nearby table. I didn’t notice what they ordered. 

At our table we started with something clever and appropriate for Tujague’s, set in New Orleans. You can get a hamburger anywhere, but crawfish bread pudding? It was an ordinary bread pudding but the crawfish sauce was spicy and on par with other crawfish sauces out there. Even better, a generous amount of mudbugs was scattered about that plate. This was a nice dish, a good New Orleans dish, but it would have been better with a little more heat on it. It arrived at the table unintentionally cold. And that is my only complaint about it.

There was nothing special about the menu, nothing that was unique to Tujague’s, so we were free to order what we wanted. What I really wanted, (because the restaurant bears the name Tujague’s) was some brisket and Chicken Bonne Femme. In this new Tujague’s I wanted a hamburger like the kids next door, but I got shrimp and grits because I want to write a round-up of the dish. This Southern favorite really does nothing for me and I never order it, but I know how popular it is so I feel compelled to cover it in some way.

It came to the table looking very appealing, as a shrimp and grits dish always does. The sauce was good, of the genre that is more complex than the original. The Emeril Lagasse version, which uses Worcestershire sauce as a key ingredient, has come to be the standard-bearer. It is more unusual to come across the original Pascal’s Manale version, which is simply butter and black pepper. 

The modern version is usually thicker, more like a real sauce than the original, which seems to be more of a dark peppery broth. This particular barbecue shrimp sauce was actually very good. It was rich, with just the right amount of pepper. There was a decent amount of shrimp of just the right size (to me this means not too big or too small.)

I realized in eating this what my objection to the dish is. I love the shrimp and the sauce. But the grits just don’t seem to work. I usually find them pasty. These were less pasty than usual, but they still weren’t good enough to finish when the shrimp ran out.

Tom ordered the Gulf fish of the day, which turned out to be halibut. Huh? I’m guessing that the restaurant knows that none of the tourists who will walk in that day will know that halibut is a resident of the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

But gulf fish or no, halibut is a king of fish, at least in my mind. It is light and white with large flakes. It has such delicate flavors it is usually seen in the finest of restaurants with a simple preparation that allows its subtle premium flavor to shine. Here it was prepared the way we normally see gulf fish presented, which seems a waste of what is no doubt an expensive fish. It was buried under a pile of sauce, with grilled shrimp on top, and all of this was flanked by roasted potatoes.

It was a tasty dish, because how could it not be? These are all great ingredients, put together by the talents of Gus Martin, who has returned from a brief stint at Keith Young’s on the north shore.

We left without dessert to move on to the Oyster Happy Hour at Chemin a la Mer at The Four Seasons Hotel. Neither of us was hungry, but for $1 an oyster at a place like that, we had to go. It was for raw oysters only, which Tom has decided he doesn’t like as much as the chargrilled oysters these days. I was so full from lunch and by now so familiar with this menu I had no desire to eat. 

After half a dozen raw oysters we left. It was a little embarrassing, but they expect that of us now. The first time we went I left my check and credit card without paying. On the second visit, we got stranded by the car dealership shuttle.

We moved on to the main event of this “Prom Night” anniversary day. It was time to drive the route, which Tom did every year for 50 years. He can hardly remember it now, but we pieced it together the best way we could. There was a hamburger consumed somewhere in there at a long-ago-razed drugstore. I wish I had thought of that at Tujague's. I would have gotten that hamburger. In honor of Prom Night! 

We ended the evening at Five Guys on the north shore, where Tom had a single cheeseburger, fries, and a Dr. Pepper. 

And I was glad to eat some peanuts.