Tuesday, December 13: “I can’t tell you how well things were going before the storm. Hollywood was in town. I had celebrities here. There were a bunch of conventions. Now we’re 10 steps back and one forward,” Bob Iacovone says. Cuvée opened October 4th. Bob scrapped his grand fall menu (duo-presentation entrees, like hazelnut-crued sea scallops over lobster-cauliflower flan paired with Taylor Bay scallops butter-poached in the shell, parmesan-stuffed tortellini and truffle-lobster butter), dropped lunch and threw his day-time meatloaf and pork belly onto the dinner list. “I didn’t know what kind of people I’d be feeding” but figured they’d want comfort.
“Now people are asking for foie gras and truffles. This really makes me happy.” I’m trimming the cheeks for the veal osso buco deconstructed with fall vegetable casoulet and marrow-whipped potatoes. We’re ahead of ourselves prep-wise. “You wanna go to the farmer’s market?” We drive through the stately Garden District, punctuated every few blocks by an isolated victim: a house with its gorgeous face ripped away or its top blown off or its windows imploded. Tornadoes, people guess. They seem to spin off hurricanes.
At the Crescent City Farmers Market’s only currently operating location in New Orleans -- Tuesday Uptown -- Frances Chauvin sells me a cushaw pie. It tastes like pumpkin, only it’s more gray in color. Frances stands with her friend, Lucy Mike, Louisiana Strawberry Ambassador. Strawberries grow north of the lake, in Hammond, Independence and Ponchatoula. Katrina didn’t eat the strawberries because there was no fruit on the plant at the time; she did chew the plastic and mess with the rows. The citrus growers weren’t as lucky; Terry Spell lost six of his greenhouses. Patsy Tvrdeic, from Roko’s Oysters in Empire where the Mississippi River spills into the Gulf, is flipping through pictures of her devastated beds.
Bob and I go to Stanley in the Quarter for Scott Boswell’s Korean barbecue beef tenderloin and house kimchee poboy. Scott appears to have bathed in kimchee. He’s stained from fingertip to lip. His recipe comes from a lady at Birmingham’s Mr. Wang’s. “For years I begged her for it.” After the storm, “she must have seen the confusion and fear in my face because she invited me into her house and showed me how to do it.” Scott’s upscale Asian fusion restaurant, Stella!, closed for million-dollar renovations a week before Katrina. Friday, August 26, they poured the new concrete. Then Scott walked out onto Bourbon Street. “I could feel the wind sucking the air out of New Orleans.”
Stanley, his breakfast and lunch spot, opened on September 29. Everything else was shuttered. They bartered hamburgers for diesel fuel. They fed Feds, rescue workers, media, “400, 500 people a day.” A Japanese camera crew trailed him. For a few days there, “Stanley was the most famous restaurant in the world.” A mountain of garbage accumulated on Chartres Street. Now Scott’s scrambling to reopen Stella! He’s got to be up and running by mid-March; he’s had a series of dinners with Iron Chef Hirouki Sakai booked for forever.
Back at Cuvée, Jessie the grill guy opens his meat drawer and rattles off a list: black shrimp, braised pork belly, braised veal cheeks, beef filet. He’s come here from the enormous Commander’s Palace, which was significantly damaged. There, he was “just a face in the crowd. It was a different kind of cooking.” Robin, the gard-manger, worked at Wolfe’s of New Orleans, in ill-fated Lakeview. “I was just starting to build a nice knife collection.” He kept his knives at the restaurant. “They’re all gone.” Waiter Rene Lefrere worked at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse. “It was submerged,” he says. “They pumped 30,000 gallons of water out of there. They say there were barnacles on the panelling.”
Woody, the floater, and John, who's at the burners tonight, walked through the Quarter the other night. “We were the only two people around.” As guys who work late, they’re tired of the curfew. “Being open until 2 AM is like being in a normal city,” says John. You could party 24 hours a day in pre-Katrina New Orleans. “That’s what set us apart.”
Orders come in, and Bob expedites. “Four chopped all day, one S.O.S.” “Give me a duo and a filet.” “Pittsburgh, mid-rare to medium.” “You got a foie coming, right? A nice, big hunka-hunka love . . .” But it’s a quiet night at Cuvée. By the time I leave at 8:30, they’ve done about 35 covers. On a busy weeknight, they do 85 or 90 by their 10 PM close.
I go to see Jennifer Powell, proprietor of the Uptown wine shop Sip, which opened after the storm. “We had trouble getting our license. No one would take our money. City Hall was a ghost town. The state wouldn’t share information that the city had lost.” She pours us a 2001 Wild Duck Creek Estate Heathcote Springflat Shiraz, leans across the counter and says to me, “It’s obvious that the restaurants are gonna open. Of course they’re gonna open. What someone should really blog about is why we can’t get the schools opened up.”