Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fêtes Past, Fêtes Future: Finding Something Lost in the Réveillon

There is no city the same size as New Orleans that cares as much about its food, a fact that is probably no more true than it is today. I think this has to do with the type of person that the city is attracting as of late. This also has some likely bearing why Orleans Parish cannot boast a single TGI Fridays, Applebee's, or Red Lobster. Few times of year are more appealing to revel in this fact than Christmastide, when réveillon menus begin to appear at local restaurants.

A recent article in the often joyless publication Cooking Light did a fine if ironic job of recounting the resurgence of the réveillon tradition in New Orleans. For a moment I imagined its subscribers' tears dropping wetly on the page as they juxtaposed a life they will never allow themselves to know with the I Can't Believe it's Not Butter lurking in their refrigerator and the 7 pm spinning class at the gym. Yet I soon reawakened to reality and acknowledged that they will only see it as a novelty undertaken in a strange land.

Indeed, the key failing of the Cooking Light piece is that it does not mention the most important dimension of réveillon, and that is the philosophy behind it. To be sure, the feast is a meal. But more critically, it is a statement - it is a worldview. Moreover, you needn't be as wealthy as the Brennan clan to pull the thing off at home. At some level you just have to reject the no trans-fat microwave popcorn age in which we live. That is why the réveillon is also a perfect fit for today's New Orleans, a city increasingly made up of individuals who have come here seeking to be expatriates yet remain in their own country. It is a place where old ways (both high and low) and all their attendant inconveniences still flourish. For certain, the city has been grossly commodified for tourist consumption, but it is also a world without Outback Steakhouse. It is a place with color and character so often missing in American landscape. Certainly, you can find similar restaurants offering multi-course prix fixe menus elsewhere (like Baccanalia in Atlanta, for instance) but few places where it is part of the lifestyle.

Jessie and I are looking forward to the day where we can host our own réveillon feast after Midnight Mass, but that will sadly be some years away. Newly married and yet without the great family magnet that are newborn babies, we must still travel to the East for holidays. We decided, however, to avail ourselves of a grand indulgence last night and take in a réveillon menu at one of our favorite local restaurants.

Martinique Bistro on Magazine Street has been the site of many enjoyable dinners. For the same price or maybe a tiny bit more than what you might spend on a mediocre meal at Romano's Macaroni Grill, you can have fine dining, excellent service, and a decent wine list. When the weather is fine, there are few restaurants that offer a more pleasant courtyard. In the winter, the dining room offers a cozy retreat that might as well be in Provence. Last night, we took in their réveillon menu.

I do not intend this post to be a restaurant review, because I question my qualifications to take on Martinique on its level. Suffice to say that going during the Saints game was a stroke of genius. The Saints lost to Dallas anyhow (we caught the occasional "son of a bitch!" coming from the kitchen) and the place was nearly empty, making it a homey experience.  Yet a few recommendations - the lobster appetizier - the endive salad - the gumbo - the duck....!

For now we will collect these menus and memories until the day when family gather here for our own réveillon.

Merry Christmas from New Orleans!

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