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A Creole Christmas

Reveling in rich holiday traditions--and great meal and hotel bargains--in the city that lives to celebrate

November 29, 1998|CONSTANCE SNOW | Snow is a food writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune and the co-author, with Kenneth Snow, of the guidebooks "Romantic Days and Nights in New Orleans" and "Access New Orleans."

NEW ORLEANS — I once did some writing for a children's encyclopedia, which is harder than it sounds, considering I was allotted just 200 words per entry to explain phenomena like "Washington, D.C." or "Aretha Franklin" to the average 10-year-old. Still, it prepared me for more daunting tasks, such as decoding the New Orleans restaurant scene for Christmas visitors.

For instance: Why do local aristocrats line up along a Bourbon Street sidewalk, in the midst of whooping barhoppers and strip-joint barkers, to wait for tables in a narrow dining room outfitted with hard chairs and unflattering lights? It's partly sentimental, since having your first grown-up meal at Galatoire's has been a rite of passage for well-heeled New Orleans children since 1905. But the main reason people wait in all weather--Galatoire's does not take reservations--is consistently great food presented in an atmosphere that never changes. (When the management switched from hand-chipped ice to cubes a few years ago, it caused a minor panic. Really, it even made the paper.)

Galatoire's is one of the last places in town serving authentic French Creole cuisine, unadulterated by blue potatoes or white-truffle oil. And it's presented by career waiters rather than moonlighting artistes, unflappable old retainers who'll grumble as they scrape crumbs off the table in front of some fierce dowager, "You're eating too much bread. You're going to ruin your lunch."

Unlike the rustic and vigorously spiced Cajun cooking of rural southwestern Louisiana, traditional New Orleans fare is city-sophisticated--unmistakably French, but deftly seasoned by generations of African and Caribbean cooks. It gets its name from the Creoles, the colonial offspring of Europeans.

The Reveillon (pronounced rev-ee-yohn) menu at Galatoire's is a study in the classics: shrimp remoulade or oysters en brochette, turtle soup or green salad with garlic, fish meuniere amandine or steak or lamb chops in Bearnaise or wine sauce.

Come at off hours to avoid the line. But if you're stuck, you'll be in good company. (A posted city ordinance warns patrons not to block the entrances of surrounding establishments, which during the busiest times gives the delicious impression that our grande dames are waiting to get into the shop next door that sells thong undies and spangled pasties.)

Around the corner on the much calmer Royal Street, Brennan's is another guardian of old-line Creole cuisine. It's also expensive, so its Reveillon is a particular bargain at $40, offering five courses of two or three choices each, a glass of wine, eggnog and coffee for slightly more than you'd usually pay for a dinner entree a la carte. The turtle soup is exemplary, as is the flaming finale, Bananas Foster, a Brennan's invention.

A graceful blend of old and new has earned countless accolades for the grand and glorious Commander's Palace, including a "lifetime outstanding restaurant" award from the James Beard Foundation and designation as the No. 1 restaurant choice in a 1997 poll of Food and Wine magazine readers. It is a Garden District landmark, a turreted turquoise-and-white Victorian mansion of sun-washed dining rooms.

Chef Jamie Shannon's Reveillon offers such updated classics as garlic-crusted redfish or a Louisiana cassoulet enriched by pheasant leg, duck and rabbit sausages. The bread pudding souffle is Commander's most popular dessert, but the fig and white chocolate pecan tart (served with white chocolate sauce and cream cheese ice cream) might tempt the faithful.

Farther up the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is the bright yellow facade of the Upperline Restaurant, a true New Orleans original. The three dining rooms are filled with fresh flowers and Southern folk art--and owner JoAnn Clevenger's big laugh. Service is smart but genial, and regulars range from French Quarter bohemians to Uptown Brahmins.

From the welcoming dish of deviled pecans and cheese straws to the vanilla custard "glazed with a hot poker," Clevenger's guests can relax in the warmest Louisiana hospitality. Among its other Reveillon menu treats are crispy duck confit with blackberry port jam, roast quail with sweet potato pecan casserole and a complimentary glass of Madeira.

Gabrielle, in the center of New Orleans near City Park, is another charmer, its lace-curtained windows overlooking the ancient oaks of Esplanade Avenue. Owners Greg and Mary Sonnier honed their skills in the kitchens of superchef Paul Prudhomme before establishing a national reputation of their own at this restaurant, named for their young daughter.

Here, Reveillon might begin with oysters and andouille (a Creole sausage) under a fried purple-potato crown, followed by grillades (veal cutlets) with roasted red pepper grits and black truffles, or pompano with fennel saffron cream.

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