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Eating at the Count’s place in New Orleans

One downside to leaving the job I had with the Delta Regional Authority was the fact that I’m no longer in New Orleans on a regular basis.

For the most part, I don’t miss the travel a bit. In 2008, my final full year with the DRA, I spent 110 nights away from home. That’s far too much time away from my family.

But I do love New Orleans. I always have.

I begged my parents to take me there as a child. As a sportswriter, I managed to cover four Sugar Bowls and one Super Bowl there. Melissa and I had our honeymoon there. I’ve long been a fan of the Saints. Most nights when I’m driving home from work, I find myself listening to WWL-AM, 870.

Those planning a trip to see Arkansas take on Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl should count on having a good time.

I was in college when the Razorbacks last played in the Sugar Bowl 31 years ago. No one would have thought at the time that it would be more than three decades before the Hogs would return to the Crescent City to play football.

Because I was the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald at Arkadelphia, I was able to obtain media passes to the Jan. 1, 1980, game against Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide had won the national championship in the Sugar Bowl a year earlier against Penn State with one of the greatest goal-line stands in college football history. Alabama would win a second consecutive national championship against a Razorback team coached by Lou Holtz.

Since the Siftings Herald was one of the smallest daily newspapers in the state, there was no expense money for such a trip. If I attended (and I was determined to attend), I would foot the bill.

I was able to obtain the media rate at the Marriott Hotel on Canal Street. I also was able to convince four buddies to attend with me in order to split the cost of the room.

You can imagine what that Marriott room looked like after five college guys had stayed in it for five nights. We would simply have the maids throw in fresh towels each morning rather than attempt to clean the entire room.

We did, however, decide to dress up one night for one nice meal (something other than food from the Lucky Dog cart on Bourbon Street), even on our college-boy budgets.

We chose Arnaud’s. Unfortunately, I almost began choking when I swallowed an entire bay leaf from my onion soup. The waiter followed me to the restroom. Once he had determined that I had dislodged the bay leaf, he let me know that he would comp my meal.

“He tries that trick everywhere,” my friends joked loudly. “It worked again.”

Actually, I would have preferred to have paid for the meal rather than go through those few minutes of terror.

My wife and I returned to Arnaud’s during our honeymoon — almost a decade after the incident — and I related that story to her. I never walk past the restaurant without thinking about onion soup. I guess I should have gone for the turtle soup that night.

If you’re serious about food and plan to spend a number of days in New Orleans, I would strongly suggest that you go to www.nomenu.com and subscribe to Tom Fitzmorris’ daily food newsletter. I’ve subscribed for years. Here’s the great thing: He only asks you to pay what you think a subscription is worth. The amount is up to you.

“Don’t worry about whether you’re sending too little,” Fitzmorris writes at the website. “If you send too much, I’ll just lengthen your subscription accordingly.”

If you wish to send him an e-mail directly, it’s tom@nomenu.com.

Fitzmorris was born in New Orleans on Mardi Gras in 1951 and never left town for more than three weeks until after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He founded The New Orleans Menu in 1977 as a four-page newsletter. It later evolved into a daily Internet-based newsletter.

I can think of nowhere other than New Orleans that could support a three-hour daily radio show that talks only about food. But Fitzmorris’ program, The Food Show, has aired since 1975. It can be heard from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. each weekday on 1350 AM in New Orleans.

Fitzmorris is a former editor of the monthly New Orleans Magazine (I subscribe to it, also) and the weekly newspaper Figaro. People have strong opinions in New Orleans when it comes to food, football and politics. And Fitzmorris has both fans and detractors when it comes to his restaurant reviews.

I’m among those who enjoy reading what he writes.

Since we mentioned Arnaud’s, here’s what he has to say about that restaurant: “One of the three or four most famous names in the long history of New Orleans dining, Arnaud’s remains a solidly excellent restaurant. It has turned in recent years to a slightly more modern style of cooking, but the core of its menu is from the grand French-Creole tradition. Few restaurants serve that better, and no other restaurant matches such food with as magnificent a collection of dining rooms.

“While Arnaud’s has never hesitated to embrace dishes made famous by its competitors (this is also true of the competitors themselves), its chef Tommy DiGiovanni does a better job than most in bringing those dishes into the 21st century. The names and ingredients are familiar, but the presentations and flavors are more refined. The menu has shrunk over the years to the point that almost everything on it can be considered a specialty. Also here is the best Sunday brunch in New Orleans.

“Arnaud’s was founded in 1918 by Count (really a French wine salesman) Arnaud Cazenave. With a combination of French classic cuisine and a sense of celebration, Count Arnaud turned his restaurant into the city’s most celebrated eatery — a reputation it held until the 1960s, when under his daughter Germaine Wells the restaurant slowly descended first into mediocrity, then into the most disappointing restaurant in town.

“In 1979, hotelier Archie Casbarian bought the restaurant and, over a period of many years, performed the finest restoration a moribund old restaurant ever received. Casbarian continued polishing the restaurant until last year, when declining health left him hors de combat. He died in early 2009. His wife and children, all of whom have been active in the management of the restaurant for many years, are keeping it on the same path.”

The Arnaud’s website describes the Count’s daughter this way: “Only New Orleans could produce a Germaine Cazenave Wells. She was lusty, dramatic, loud and headstrong. Her taste and capacity for alcohol, celebration and men were extreme, even by the standards of today. … Germaine had a way of attracting attention, and she adored the spotlight. She defined the restaurant business as theater. ‘It’s a play in two acts,’ she said, ‘lunch and dinner.”’

The website goes on to tell how she “took to the mock-royal rituals of Mardi Gras like a fish to water. She ruled over 22 Carnival balls, an overachievement unlikely to be equaled. She instituted a parade of her own on Easter Sunday to show off her latest hats, with her friends following in horse-drawn buggies. That pageant continued after Germaine’s death and persists to this day.”

The Count had died a month shy of his 72nd birthday in 1948.

“He continues look down on his main dining room from a large oil painting mounted there,” the restaurant’s website says. “It is flanked by portraits of his wife Irma and her sister, Marie Lamothe. Rumor has it that the Count never could make up his mind between the two sisters. The slightly roguish twinkle in the Count’s eyes might fill in the rest of that story for you.”

Just be careful not to swallow a bay leaf while looking up at that painting.

I hope to find the time to write quite a bit about New Orleans on this blog between now and the end of the year. So if you’re planning a Sugar Bowl trip, check back often.

I plan to write about Galatoire’s, my favorite restaurant in the world, not so much for the food as for the traditions. I hope to write about John Besh and his collection of restaurants. And we may even relive the Hap Glaudi and Buddy D. days on WWL, my favorite radio station in the country.

Let me know your favorite New Orleans restaurants and your favorite New Orleans memories.

The countdown to the Sugar Bowl has begun.

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