Thursday, December 22: Slim Goodies is serving grub on paper plates. Reopening two weeks after a catastrophe does a good deal to shore up appreciation, so the Uptown dive has been busy. They can’t keep up with the dishes. I forego the “manly-man’s” Contractor’s Breakfast for just about the only vegetarian meal in New Orleans. I consider my fakin’ bacon and veggie chili and eggs. “Nix the Katrina Combo,” the waitress tells the short-order cook. She shows me her tattoos. “‘Nix’? What’s ‘nix’?” the short-order cook asks her. “86 it, babe,” the waitress tells him. “ ‘Nix,’” he says. “I never heard of that term.”
At GW Fins, the chef says to me, “Have you seen a house yet?” We drive to Lakeview. Tenney rattles off the “exotics” that get hooked in the Gulf: opa, triple tail, trigger fish, amberjack. Tenney corrects my previous blog’s facts: “I’m only 51 years old, and I only work 14 hours a day.” Tenney explicates the shells of buildings: “There’s my dry cleaner’s, my bank.” “That was the nastiest little restaurant you’ve ever seen in your life.” His house is a cute, old shingled thing inside which mold blooms “like a Jackson Pollock.” The furniture is mudcaked and topsy-turvy. Outside is a brown bit of shrub. “I had the lushest landscaping,” Tenney says. He grew banana leaves, ginger leaves and lemon grass for the restaurant. “Wait’ll you see this tuna we got in. It’s $11 a pound. In New York, it’d be $20.”
Back at the restaurant, the standing mixer is kicking up a racket beating cheddar-cheese dough. Tenney cuts the yellowfin. He strokes with one hand and slices with the other. “Color is a big indicator of freshness. So is firmness.” Stroke, slice. “Feel that.” I poke it. It’s firm. He hauls out a “nasty sheephead.” It’s been out of the water for “probably ten days.” It looks like a sofa that’s losing its batting. Its teeth are flat like a human’s. He filets the thing and places a filet on ice. “Now, if you saw this in the supermarket, would you buy it?” Sure. Looks fine. “That’s why I always buy my fish whole.” He chucks the sheephead. He uses his knife like a pointer on a striped bass. “Look for a new cut in the belly, a red cavity, red gills.” Then we go at the snapper. Scaling fish is like grooming a Shih Tzu. The scaler looks like a small dog brush. The knife is very sharp. Cut shallow along the backbone, nicking between the eyes. Cut progressively deeper with the whole of the blade. At the fin bone, yank bowie knife-style. It’s a little bit of tickle, a little bit of slap. Leave the filet on when you turn the fish over; the meat provides support for your cut. Pull the bones out with a tool-shed pliers. Lay the filet skin-down on the ice.
The chef steps into and out of the walk-in. “Here are those itty-bitty Louisiana shrimp they’ve been talking about.” They must be four inches long. He throws some on the grill. We suck the heads. Short-staffed with new guys, GW Fins isn’t offering complicated dishes now. No Dover sole with fried bones for a crown. “We’ll make that stuff again. But with the quality of fish we’ve been messing around with today, you don’t have to do a lot to it.” The wood throws up flames. The shrimp are sweet. “People say it’s rustic. But I’m a rustic guy." Before I leave, Bobby Boots whispers, “Wanna see the baby?” The baby is tiny and plastic and sitting above the heat lamps. It’s the Mardi Gras baby that’s baked inside a King cake. It’s a symbol of rebirth.
I race to Delachaise to meet Alain Joseph. The city’s remaining wine bar has a rounded plate-glass front. The glaziers want $4500 for two blown-out panels. Alain and I sip framboise. Alain is not a rustic guy. He’s got a glamour job. He runs Emeril’s test kitchen: travel, creative thinking, television gigs. Lately, given post-Katrina layoffs, the gig includes responding to fan mail and shipping Bam! BBQ Sauce.
Rudy Lombard calls Alain, a young black chef, the heir-apparent to Nathaniel Burton. “A lot of people want to see me open my own place.” It’s enticing. Alain is first-generation from Haiti. He sees the Haitian in Creole cooking. “We use rice too. We use lots of peppers, both sweet and hot. We use pork. We fry.” It’s related to the city’s history. “New Orleans’ population doubled with people fleeing Haiti after the Revolution.” Alain’s restaurant “would be proclaiming that legacy. It’s a natural transition.” So why not do it? The commitment, the money, the pressure – it’s daunting. There’s also tradition to grapple with. “For longevity, Creole’s the pinnacle of regional American cuisine,” argues Alain. “But it’s been stuck in a time warp. People like what they like.” Times have changed, however. Katrina has wiped some slate clean. “There’s spontaneity now.” Alain’s interest is piqued -- sometimes. “It’s a rebirth, a Renaissance. . .Well, occasionally it feels that way.” I look at the plywood where the windows ought to be. “Then again,” he says, “oftentimes it doesn’t.”