The Royal Oak Restaurant And Pub
Gretna: Oakwood Mall
What was the best Greek restaurant in New Orleans history doing in a large shopping mall on the West Bank?
If you stepped into the Royal Oak without knowing anything about it, you probably wouldn’t guess that it was Greek. The dining room was handsome and comfortable, with no Greek decor to speak of. Its kitchen used the best raw materials for everything, at a time when the few other Greek places served canned stuffed grape leaves and the like.
The reason for the Royal Oak’s unlikely excellence was that its owners were avid gourmets. John “Chauncey” Newsham–a CPA by profession–and his wife Julia Pappas Newsham were members of all the wine-and-food societies we had in those days. They were also a pair of happy, unpretentious people. You took a liking to them the first moment you met them. John was always laughing about something or other–especially his own checkered fortunes in the restaurant business. He also owned the Seven Samurai, in the location where Mr. B’s is now, when Japanese restaurants were not yet popular. “Of the three least popular kinds of restaurants in America,” he told me once, “the only kind I don’t own is a health-food restaurant!” Then he threw his head back and laughed.
Julia was the Greek connection, but John knew all about Greek cooking too. Royal Oak’s menu included all the Greek classics. If you were there on a good day, the food was brilliant, served amply and even presented nicely. Which is not a common appearance for Greek food.
You started well indeed if you had taramosalata. John made it personally, using carp roe, olive oil, lemon juice, and bread soaked in water and pureed. As unpromising as that may sound, the stuff was fantastic as an appetizer. Similar in appearance but totally different in flavor was the skordalia, a thick, smooth sauce of almonds and garlic which they served with two utterly different dishes: a cold beet salad and a fried seafood platter. The stuff was spectacular with both.
The Royal Oak was the first New Orleans Greek restaurant to serve saganaki, a slab of kasseri cheese coated with a light batter, broiled on a hot platter, then brought to the table and sizzled and flamed with ouzo and lemon juice.
The entrees included the most elegant gyros sandwich you ever saw, a marvelously light moussaka, and souvlaki of various kinds. They also had good lamb chops.
And one real oddity. The Royal Oak’s chef had come from Pascal’s Manale, and knew the recipe for that restaurant’s barbecue shrimp. The Royal Oak made them the same way, and they were terrific. Nobody ever questioned the obvious non-Hellenic aspect of that dish.
A case could be made that the best dish of all at the Royal Oak was a dessert called galaktoboureko. The lightest imaginable custard, flavored with honey and something like orange flower water, was baked under a phyllo crust. It all but floated off the plate. Julia Newsham made that personally.
The Royal Oak had consistency problems. John and Julia had other irons in the fire, and weren’t there to watch the place all the time. Nor was the restaurant so busy that the kitchen kept a white heat going at all times. This became especially true in the last years of the restaurant, when the Newshams had given up on the idea of making a profit with the place. It folded when all the other good restaurants on the West Bank did, in the aftermath of the oil crash in the 1980s.
But to this day, even in Chicago and other centers of Greek citizenry, I have never found a better Greek restaurant than the Royal Oak was in its prime.