WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
The Upperline is the brainchild–there is no better word for it–of JoAnn Clevenger. Eating here is to open oneself to a barrage of her creative statements about art, drama, and literature, as well as food and wine. Her most famous culinary idea is the summer-long garlic menu, but there’s almost always a festival of something or other here. Not everything is offbeat: the Upperline’s menu is full of classic Creole dishes, including a tasting menu of traditional local dishes. Prices are lower than you’d expect, and the wine list more impressive.
This is one of the increasingly rare restaurants whose goal is not to make menu statements or ride trends, but to explore a certain well-considered flavor palette. It’s as Southern in style as it is Creole, and brings a certain comfortable frisson of familiar pleasure. The ingredients and kitchen practices are of better quality than one usually finds for dishes along these lines.
One of the first of the gourmet Creole bistros that changed the dining scene in the 1980s, The Upperline opened in 1983 in the former Martin’s, a long-running old-style French-Creole cafe. Later, a house next door was added to the restaurant’s facilities. Owner JoAnn Clevenger’s personal history is so interesting that she really ought to write an autobiography (she’s easily literate enough to make it great reading). This was her first big project after selling her seminal French Quarter bar, the Abbey. Her son Jason–the chef who made Cafe Sbisa a terrific, innovative restaurant–joined her as chef. He was succeeded by Tom Cowman, one of the most personable and unique chefs in New Orleans history. Cowman built much of the menu you find at the Upperline today, including the original, much-imitated shrimp remoulade on fried green tomatoes and the annual garlic menu. After Tom’s passing, Dick Benz (who later opened Dick and Jenny’s) took over the kitchen, followed by Ken Smith, who brought a Southern country flavor.
The original restaurant flows into an adjacent cottage to make a string of small dining rooms. All are filled with artworks, with primitive and folk artists dominating the theme.
Fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade.
Duck and andouille etouffee.
Sweetbreads and polenta with mushroom ragout.
Seared foie gras.
Cane River Country shrimp (with grits and shrimp bisque sauce).
Grilled fish with tapenade.
Shrimp curry with condiments and jasmine rice.
Filet mignon with garlic Port sauce.
Roast duck with ginger peach sauce.
Rack of lamb with mint and Madeira.
Beef tournedos with Stilton cheese.
FOR BEST RESULTS
Go for any special menu that may be in force. If a dish sounds out of place or odd, it has a good chance of being the best dish in the house that night.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
When the restaurant is full–as it often is–it can get a little overcrowded and noisy. There is a gently but firmly applied rule about how long you’re allowed to linger at the table in the early seatings.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +2
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +2
- Hipness +1
- Local Color +3
- Good for business meetings
- Open Sunday dinner
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations honored promptly
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
One of the original Nouvelle-Creole bistros, the Upperline is the product of the endlessly fertile mind of owner JoAnn Clevenger. Eating here is to open oneself to a barrage of her creative statements about art, drama, literature… and, yes, food too. Her most famous culinary idea is the summer-long garlic menu, but there’s almost always a festival of something or other here. Not everything is offbeat: the Upperline’s menu is full of classic Creole dishes, including a tasting menu of gumbo, beans and rice, etc. Prices are lower than you’d expect. Never a dull moment here.
Something good to remember: The Upperline is well away from the parade routes, and easy to get to.