Monday, August 17, 2009

The Frustrating Phenomenon of "Almost Great"

Blackboards with campy phrases adorn the cheerful interior of Ignatius Eatery.

Every now and again, I encounter this in the classroom: the student who, despite revealing enormous capacity for greatness, never quite fulfills their promise. I can see them in my mind's eye now, schlepping across campus in flip-flops, perpetually happy with a too-easily gained "B" average.

Perhaps this is too harsh of an analogy to make with Ignatius Eatery at 4200 Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans. In many ways, it is a great neighborhood restaurant, offering reasonably priced fare, an inviting atmosphere, and decent service. But their capacity to do some things extremely well and plating them next to the dreadfully ordinary is just kind of frustrating. It's good, but it could be so much better than it is.

Straight up, I would recommend Ignatius to anyone who wants an easy and mostly satisfying meal, especially if you have out-of-town guests in tow who are looking for some local New Orleans favorites such as po-boys and red beans and rice and yearn for a hassle-free outing. (Of course, if I were in the French Quarter, I would go straight to Stella! ...but that's another post. And my favorite po-boy is hands-down the fried oyster variety at Domelise's, but they offer limited hours and accept cash only. )

While I have read online reviews that complain about bad service, I have found the staff both friendly and attentive on recent trips. One online reviewer from Chicago, her heart set on "jumbalaya," ended up at Ignatius when she found that she couldn't wear jeans at Commander's Palace. She declared the food "just okay," but the bread pudding as "YUM!" On the one hand, this made me think that the Crescent City might want to ramp up its campaign of culinary enlightenment in the rust belt. But I was also struck at how I and this gourmand from the City with Broad Shoulders came away with the same impression of Ignatius, if for different reasons.

Like that "B" student, there are many things that Ignatius does very well. Guests at every table receive a carafe of ice water and chilled glasses upon arrival, which is a particularly nice touch on a hot August afternoon. Beer is served in paper bags ("Camp Street" style) - a trifle silly but tolerable in a place that aims to be funky. Yet it is the food where a restaurant lives or dies, and there's a little of both taking place on the table at Ignatius.

Despite the heat of the day, Jessie and I shared a cup of the crab and corn bisque and found it wonderfully rich, tangy, and sweet with terrific crab flavor. Likewise, my roast beef po-boy featured many of the best qualities of its kind served throughout the city. I'm not a huge fan of sandwiches slathered with Maggi-style brown gravy mix, and while I find the famous "debris" at Mother's quite tasty, I always feel afterward as if I'd been bobbing for apples in a hotel pan full of pot roast juice. Ignatius delivers tender pulled beef in a savory sauce on a Leidenheimer roll - simple and good, though a little on the dry side for some people's tastes. I'll admit that I was also happy that I wasn't wearing part of the sandwich when I left.

The menu also includes something advertised as "boudin meat loaf." (Those unfamiliar with boudin sausage, a foodstuff with nearly as many variations in southern Louisiana as there are snowflakes in the Antarctic, should really check out The Boudin Link.) To call it such is a little misleading, as the boudin really only contributes a small amount to the meatloaf's pleasant flavor profile, yet it was tremendously good. That no thought had been given to the meatloaf's appearance could have been forgiven if it were not next to a scoop full of soggy yellow corn and unmemorable potatoes that would have been more at home in an army chow line. And this is crux of my gripe: what dish could be easier to render (in summer, no less) than simple sweet corn? Moreover, in an establishment where ketchup bottles line shelves in the dining room, wouldn't it have been simple to put a little color on meatloaf? With more care, and Ignatius could be oh so much better. Maybe not Commander's, but better.

Then again, perhaps I doth protest too much. Like my "B" students, Ignatius is eminently likable, and I'll undoubtedly make a return visit.

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