Friday, December 16: Jack Leonardi doesn’t want me in his kitchen. I’ve come to Carrollton from Leonardi’s lunch place, Crabby Jack’s, having negotiated miles of blacked-out traffic lights and makeshift stop signs to meet Lorin Gaudin, New Orleans Magazine food editor, for a barbecued brisket po’boy, onion rings, jambalaya and a bread dressing-stuffed mirliton topped with fried shrimp and cream sauce. A little light eating on the Jefferson Highway. “Mel-a-ton,” Lorin had corrected my pronunciation. I had had my heart set on the rabbit po’boy, but they haven’t been able to get rabbit since the storm. “We don’t know where those people are,” the girl behind the counter had said.
Now I’m outside a cleaned but locked Jacques-Imo’s with Jack, who’s back from Thailand by way of New York. “It’s no fun right now,” says Jack. “I’m stressed out.” He’s had to cut staff and change things around for his December 29 reopening. He’s concerned that the infamously sloppy good times at Jacques-Imo’s, his down-home Creole joint in Carrollton, will come at the expense of a disgruntled kitchen. There’s a guy standing with Jack on the chilly Oak Street sidewalk. The guy remains unintroduced. “Heroic?” the guy says to me. “Try clearing 500 pounds of seafood out of a warm freezer. That’s heroic.”
The night before, I had eaten at Lilette. John Harris skins his boudin noir, dips it in bread crumbs and flash fries it. It’s crumbly and herbaceous, a superlative first course in an Uptown sophisticate with a deco interior, white gazpacho soup and this-side-of-rare Muscovy duck breast on the menu and an amaro flight to finish. Lilette is having its best season ever. But for every fortunately located, ambitious restaurant that’s back up and running, there are two waterlogged stalwarts and three wind-splintered joints, their steam trays and coolers chucked on the sidewalk. “Try Frank Brigtsen,” Jack says. “He’s opening on the 29th.”
Back in the Central Business District, Jeff Kundinger rattles off wines for the Cuvée wait staff. He tells stories about old-vine France. He quizzes them on the difference between the northern côte and the southern côte. He’s got suggestions “if anybody’s looking for a killer Alsatian.” He’s fond of saying, “It’s a neat, little bottle.” Cuvée’s wine list is Jeff’s responsibility. It’s over 700 bottles long. When his suppliers weren’t delivering -- one of them having forfeited their entire stock to the insurance company for salvage auction -- Jeff scored a truck and a FEMA pass and went to the warehouses himself. “If you need help explaining wine,” a waiter tells me, “you get Jeff to talk to the table, and half an hour later . . .” He rolls his hand in a ‘hurry-up’ motion. “He’s great with the customers.”
He’s also leaving. Jeff’s home was swallowed by water. His wife and four-year-old are living in Wisconsin. The kid’s taken to saying, “Daddy’s not coming home.” “I’m not selling my house,” Jeff tells me, tamping his cigarette on the concrete in the courtyard behind Cuvée. “But there’s nothing in Lakeview. Nobody knows what they’re gonna do out there.” And, besides, says Jeff, “I’m like the last sommelier in the city. Kenny LaCour, the owner of Cuvée] says I’m a Ferrari on a dirt road.”
We return to the dining room where Bob’s got me in “a monkey suit” running food. “The osso bucco’s fantastic!” Rene is telling table 27, one hand gesturing, the other palming a tray holding a precariously tipped martini. “You gonna dessert that table?” Sean is asking Toby. Luis is bobbing the baby from table 12. Melissa is in the kitchen asking, “Do we have anything to feed a baby?” David is wiping down water glasses. And Larry is serving the phyllo-wrapped peppadew-and-pecorino amuse-bouche to table 22 and calling it “just a little something to welcome you back to New Orleans.”