Thursday, September 16. Oyster Shucker Benefit At Tujague's. Grim Outlook. I had just come to the conclusion that the commercials I was doing for New Orleans Audi had been found wanting when I learned of a suddenly-arranged live broadcast from their showroom for today. I am not a car-wild guy, but we actually do own an Audi and like it well enough that I can speak my mind in the spots. We had the usual very loose show, joking around with Van Bohn and his staff. They have a hot, two-seater convertible in the showroom with a ten-cylinder engine. I sat in it to see if it helped me feel younger. All it did was give me a backache from the effort to lift myself out of the low-slung driver's seat. I've always found acting my age is the best way to go.
Besides, this car's sticker price is something like $180,000.
Tujague's owner Steve Latter wrote a few days ago to say that the benefit dinner he's holding for the laid-off oyster shuckers at P&J Oyster Company sold very well, and that he and the P&J guys wanted me to be there. I'm overdue for a dinner at Tujague's anyway.
And there's a new chef. He has a great name: Rhett Byrd. From the few dishes I tried tonight I'd say he's just what the doctor ordered for Tujague's, which has been drifting in recent years into what I think was maybe a little too homely a style of cooking. They have the best reason in the world for cooking that way--the place is second only to Antoine's in age, having opened in 1856. But most customers don't know what that means, and current culinary standards have shifted greatly.
"Steve told me I can change anything I want except for the brisket and the shrimp remoulade," Rhett told me. That's all I needed to hear. Well--maybe I'd like to hear that the chicken bonne femme needs to stay steady.
The dinner got off to a great start with grilled shrimp, mangos and cucumbers, all tossed into a cool, spicy salad. The mussels with, allegedly, foie gras in the sauce. I didn't taste that, but they were good anyway. I wondered whether the inclusion of mussels were some sort of ironic statement about the dire situation in the local oyster business.
How dire that is came in a conversation with Al Sunseri. He and his brother Sal operate P&J, as their family has for over a century. "Most of the oystermen that we have a long relationship with have had all their oysters die because of the fresh water," he said. "We have oysters, but not like normal. See those three guys? They're our entire staff of shuckers right now. And they're only working twenty or so hours a week. We used to have a few dozen full-time shuckers."
That was striking, and so was this: "We have to charge $96 a gallon of shucked oysters," Al said. That's something like three times what it was six months ago. (A good gallon of big oysters will work out to sixteen to eighteen dozen. That works out to about five dollars a dozen wholesale. Restaurants typically have a 25-35 percent food cost in their menu prices. This means that they'd have to charge between $15 and $20 for a dozen fried oysters--without the French fries.
Al's sister Mary was even more downbeat. "I've retired against my will," she said. "I can say that I like not having to be at work at three-thirty in the morning every day, but I'm not happy."
The dinner went on. A salad. Then a filet mignon stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese (top, above)--much better than it sounded. The other entree option looked good: a potato-encrusted drumfish, sitting in a curried tomato broth with a creme fraiche flavored with avocado (bottom, above). People who got this said it was terrific.
And a stunning dessert: white chocolate cheesecake with fresh raspberries, and a fanciful sugar fan stuck in the top of it. This was not typical Tujague's food, but I can't help thinking that the restaurant would be better if it were. I hope they can work Louisiana oysters back into the mix soon.
Tujague's. French Quarter: 823 Decatur 504-525-8676. Classic Creole.