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Only until further notice

In New Orleans, a city defined by its culinary culture, restaurateurs vow to rebuild.

September 14, 2005|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

OTHER cities have specialties, a hoagie here or a chimichanga there. New Orleans has a cuisine, a rich, vibrant, fully evolved style of cooking from centuries in a pivotal location. There the melting pot actually lived up to the great American concept, blending African, West Indian, French, Spanish, Italian, Cajun and recently Vietnamese into one exuberant good-times roll.

It's a city where an out-of-town couple eating at the bar at Nola the night before Thanksgiving would get invited to potluck turkey at the cook's home, with resistance not an option. Or where a restaurant owner would buy the whole house drinks just because he's feeling good. Though other places have sold their souls to tourism, New Orleans has always shared.

According to a number of the city's prominent chefs and restaurateurs, that heartfelt tradition still remains, despite the nightmare still playing out. They all echo what Susan Spicer of Bayona and Herbsaint insisted from her brother's house in Jackson, Miss.: Nothing can kill the music or the food.

The Saturday before the storm, Spicer closed Herbsaint but stayed open at Bayona because she had 180 seats reserved. About 100 people turned up, and she gave away food and cracked open Champagne before packing up her family to get out of town at 1:30 a.m.

Most of the chefs and restaurateurs reached by phone or e-mail say they have no real sense of what property damage awaits them. In the meantime, they're wrangling with insurance companies and hoping for the least devastating scenario.

All would like to reopen, even if they can only sell sandwiches to construction workers, as Jacques Leonardi of Jacques-Imo's in the Bywater district is considering.

The French Quarter, home to many landmark restaurants, was largely spared flooding and suffered only sporadic looting. Chef Paul Prudhomme says he went to City Hall several days ago to apply for permission to reopen his K Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in order to feed relief workers, the military and police, but "the city official said no. It's dangerous there. You can't let one restaurant operate, whether they're giving the food away or not, and tell others they can't operate." Instead, Prudhomme and his staff are feeding people from his spice company's offices in nearby Harahan.

Amazingly, Alex Patout's Louisiana Restaurant never closed during the storm and its aftermath, offering water and rations to passing police, reporters and Quarter holdouts.

John Besh, chef at Restaurant August, one of the city's newer and best regarded restaurants, is "cooking red beans for cops," according to Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Anderson has been out in the swampy streets working as a reporter since the hurricane.

The chefs who have not been able to get back to their restaurants, however, which is most of them, are relying mostly on second-hand reports and satellite photos.

For now, as co-owner Mary Sonnier of Gabrielle in the Mid-City neighborhood of Faubourg Saint John put it, purveyors have no food to sell, and restaurateurs have no patrons. "My business is gone," she says.

Holed up in a motel in Memphis, Tenn., with her chef-husband, Greg, she's seen a photo recently that holds out hope that damage to their restaurant is not as bad as they initially feared.

Quick visits to some of the city's landmark restaurants indicate that many of the buildings have weathered the storm.

Despite initial reports that Commander's Palace, the Garden District landmark, suffered severe wind damage, what appeared to be a blown-out wall was actually just some pre-storm construction work. A peek inside the restaurant reveals napkins fanned out atop each table setting, as if awaiting the usual Saturday night crowd. Alex Martin Brennan, a member of the extended family that runs Commander's, says they have no doubts about reopening; he hopes to get into the restaurant this week to see whether anyone broke in. "We had what I would term some mild wind damage to the roof and a couple of windows."

A few miles down St. Charles Avenue, Emeril's Delmonico is boarded up and appears to have dodged any damage. In the French Quarter, a south-facing brick wall atop Antoine's crumbled, exposing timbers and the old building's attic to the elements. Over the weekend, soldiers for the 82nd Airborne tarped the gap, and it appeared the restaurant did not face significant damage otherwise.

Like the Brennans of Commander's Palace and JoAnn Clevenger of the Upperline in Uptown, Gabrielle's Sonnier says she's determined to start over. "I don't know if we'll be back in the same building," says Sonnier. "We'll still have great food, but we might do something different."

"Everyone needs to take a deep breath and know it's going to be a while," says Spicer. "New Orleans has such a strong culture. People are not that easily deterred."

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