Tom’s mother Aline Gremillion Fitzmorris was renowned in her family of origin for her cooking skills. Tom has proudly repeated a saying that is part of family lore: “Aline can make a meal out of nothing.” Such is the basis of the regional cuisine in these parts. Cooks that had limited resources but good culinary intuition turned out great meals. Cooks with inferior resources and ingredients can offer only the worst food. Obviously the most desirable pairing is great chef and great ingredients, but the most frustrating combination is good ingredients done by a chef with no idea what to do with them.
Which brings me to the Old Rail Brewery, where we recently had dinner. This place opened in 2014 as a fancy brewpub. It was a welcome addition to the scene in Old Town Mandeville, which, especially at that time, was way less hip and a lot more sleepy. Naturally, we rushed in there. Not Tom - the Marys. I was shocked at the food until I learned that the “chef” was a college roommate of the owner, seemingly his only credential for the position.
After sampling a number of dishes I swore off the place, even though we pass it every time we are headed to places we find way more desirable. Incredibly, there is always a full parking lot. I attributed it to the beer, recusing myself from an opinion as a non-drinker. Clearly a lot of money was spent getting the place open, and opening another smaller equally-puzzling place called Barley Oak, so we wished the owner well. Plus, he’s a very nice fellow. Just because it wasn’t for me certainly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be for everyone else.
But recently curiosity got the better of me, especially when a respected caller to the radio show recommended it. Add to that increasing ennui with the regular places and a post-show balmy evening, and we found ourselves at the hostess stand trying to snag the last remaining outdoor table.
The staff here looked exactly as I would have expected, but surprisingly the clientele did not. Well-dressed Mandeville matrons and their male counterparts filled the tables, with others sitting on the benches outside. What have I missed about this place?
Nothing. Either these people are beer connoisseurs, or this is an upscale night away from The Cracker Barrel. (My apologies to The Cracker Barrel.)
I remembered the Irish Nachos from my last visit in 2014. Passing on those, I ordered the housemade chips with Blue cheese sauce and crumbles. They arrived at the table so dark they resembled sweet potato fries. I hate that look for fried things, but I told myself I make chips that look like that sometimes too. Except that I don’t have a restaurant.
The chips were thick and crunchy, and the Blue cheese sauce was fine. There was so much Blue cheese on these chips I had to wonder. I kept eating these for some inexplicable reason, maybe I didn’t want to waste Blue cheese? There could be no other explanation. This was not really bad, but neither was it good.
Another appetizer item caught my eye. It was smoked beef belly. The waiter enthusiastically explained that they don’t do pork belly. Beef belly is like pork belly, extra fatty and all, he explained, but it’s beef. He seemed really titillated by their creativity.
To be fair, the beef tips were very tender with a good texture, completely coated with a barbecue sauce that I did not find offensive, meaning it made no real impression. In the middle of the pile of tips was the most peculiar collection of vegetables. Large pieces, sweet, maybe some pickled, I later learned this was their version of coleslaw. In the coleslaw world there are many contenders for best. This is the clear winner for worst, with a wide chasm separating it from the also-rans. Three capital letters come to mind followed by a question mark, all of which are unprintable.
I swapped this out for another side, but all fall into that same category.
We ordered two entrees. Tom got a Reuben, which he does whenever he sees it, and I did the same, asking for a club sandwich. There were supposedly fresh cut fries, but I didn’t even need to see them. I was curious about the bucchero beans and potato salad, as well as the dirty rice. We took two bites from the dirty rice and quit, which is unthinkable. I sent back the Bucchero beans which tasted like beer, and there are no words for the potato salad. Or the coleslaw. Obviously the kitchen occupants have never heard the saying “we eat with our eyes first.” The macaroni and cheese was tolerable if you had to eat mac’n’cheese.
The sandwiches were pretty, piled high with ingredients on a buttery Texas toast and Marble Rye. Neither was cut at all, repudiating a distinctive characteristic of the classic club. But this wasn’t a classic club anyway. It was hot, first of all, and it had a pesto mayo. This was not a bad sandwich. It just wasn’t a club sandwich.The ingredients appeared to be of good quality, with a little sear from the grill.
Tom’s Reuben was more classic. The pastrami was sliced very thin, making it really tender. The sauerkraut was generous, cheese good, coming together quite nicely. There was nothing really wrong with this sandwich.
The dirty rice with it was mushy and tasted mostly of the fresh chopped green onion on top. Sad to waste dirty rice, but we did. The potato salad was the infamous star of this order. Red potatoes halved but no smaller, coated with a creole mustard appeared to be the extent of the effort here. There was nothing to recommend this.
I asked the waiter if the roommate chef was still in the kitchen and was told he left only months ago, followed by a chef that made it a few weeks, and now a new one was carrying on the same recipes that I remembered 7 years ago.
In all of the time I have been with Tom I can think of only three restaurants that have shocked me with their ineptitude, ignorance, or laziness. All of them have an atmosphere that tries to make up for this. Obviously it does overcome kitchen deficiencies for people who care less about food.
It may seem unfair to judge a place this harshly with just one visit, but if everything on the table is forgettable at best, it’s logical to conclude that anything really good on the menu would be an aberration. So I’ll give the Old Rail high marks for consistency. That’s something, right? It was just as bad as when I swore off it 7 years ago.
There is a popular saying in the restaurant industry when a customer sends something back to the kitchen. “I’m sorry it wasn’t to your taste.” Old Rail is not to my taste, but it is for a lot of other people. And for that I am genuinely glad. As Tom likes to say, “they can have all of my share.”