Food & drink Fine dining, poor reading

'Arnaud's Restaurant Cookbook' offers better recipes than anecdotes

I've heard it said that New Orleans folk are as likely to ignore their rich heritage as they are to talk about it, simply because it surrounds them so completely. Still, I couldn't help but be disappointed by Arnaud's Restaurant Cookbook, written by Kit Wohl, the restaurant's public-relations and advertising liaison, which reads more like an extended advertising brochure than the insider history one might like in a book about an 87-year-old restaurant.

In 1918, "Count" Arnaud Cazenave, a Frenchman and wine salesman, founded Arnaud's in New Orleans' French Quarter. Since then, the restaurant has belonged to only one other family, the Casabarians, who took it over from Arnaud's daughter 25 years ago. Surely "colorful" Count Arnaud's family must have had some great anecdotes, photos, and memorabilia - the restaurant came up alongside jazz and saw the shift of prostitution from Storyville to the French Quarter - but you'll find little about the character or life of the restaurateur here, and the book features only a handful of historic photos.

The newer photos, taken by well-known portrait photographer David G. Spielman, are busy and overwrought, which may not be the fault of the photographer, but of the subject. Arnaud's splendid old dining rooms are rendered like kitschy bed-and-breakfast halls, as colorful wallpaper, chandeliers, and mirrors compete for the viewer's eye with tables covered in flowers, silver, glasses, bread, napkins, and more flowers. Was the Grand Dame simply overdressed for the occasion? Spielman's compositions are otherwise lovely - he easily captures a stainless steel pitcher nestled among stacks of heavy restaurant plates or a balloon-cheeked trumpet player.

Whatever one might think about the content, the book shines in its recipes, which are well-written, clear, and easy to follow.

Since 1918, Arnaud's menu has focused on Creole cooking, a blend of French and African cuisine, mixed with German, Italian, and American. Comparing an old menu with the recipes offered, one can see that the restaurant still serves some of the same dishes it did in the beginning, although the Chicken Rochambeau, which features bordelaise sauce served under a piece of toast and a chicken breast smothered in creamy béarnaise, must cost more than 90 cents today.

Arnaud's Restaurant Cookbook
By Kit Wohl
$29.95, 224 pages
ISBN: 1589803094
We chose a Creole Jambalaya recipe from the chapter "The Casual Side of Creole Cooking." Jambalaya, the instructions say, may include just about anything you have in the fridge meat or fish-wise, and can be made with fresh ingredients or leftovers. But, Arnaud's cautions, best to stick to the recipe the first time.

We did, and it came together easily, producing light, fluffy rice and tender shrimp. Tomatoes and fish stock provided just enough liquid to cook the rice and temper the salt and spice of the Andouille sausage we added, but did not overcook the vegetables; green onions were pungent and green bell peppers bright.

Overall, the jambalaya was delicious. If one can't appreciate it like a New Orleans native, filling in the gaps in the story with personal historic knowledge, one can at least enjoy Arnaud's Restaurant Cookbook it for its recipes, which make it a keeper.

By Susan Pagani


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