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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Simply The Best

May 16, 2016

Years ago someone asked me, “Where were you when JFK was shot?”

My first reaction was— do I look that old? Followed by, “I have no clue. I was only two-years old.”

I do remember that I was sitting on the floor of my den watching television when I heard about Martin Luther King’s assassination several years later. I was on my way to work when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during takeoff. I was at a friend’s apartment when Ronald Reagan was shot, and sitting in an IHOP having breakfast when the first plane hit the World Trade Center the morning of 9/11.

Other than those tragic world events I don’t remember a lot of details about “where” and “when” as it pertains to national news. Food is another story.

I can tell you exactly where I was when I ate the best orange of my life— in the middle of the Mississippi Sound just north of Ship Island on my soon-to-be father-in-law’s sailboat. I can tell you where I ate the best French fry I ever tasted— at the base of Aspen Mountain in June of 1995, which was the first time I ever heard of anyone putting truffle oil and Parmigiano Reggiano on a fried potato. I was at my grandmother’s dining room table when I ate the best lamb of my life, my late friend Joe Tatum’s fish camp when I ate the best boiled shrimp, in Paul Bocuse’s restaurant, Sud, in Lyon, France when I ate the best soup, and in Ristorante Cibreo in Florence, Italy when I ate the best spinach dish, ever.

It’s now possible for me to report where I was when I ate the best onion ring of my life— Crescent City Steaks in New Orleans.

Purple Parrot Company Chief Operating Officer, Dusty Frierson, and I were on a research trip to New Orleans a few weeks ago. It’s something we do several times a year. Many times we don’t even have a mission, the short, day trips are an excellent opportunity to get away from the grind of business and the constant drone of telephones and get some work done. This trip we were bouncing all over town knocking out several items on our punch list.

Late in the afternoon the conversation turned to— where are we going to eat dinner? We hadn’t initially planned on staying for dinner. But we got caught up in several unplanned discussions and it seemed better than braving the after-work caravan of suits headed for the North Shore.

We were in the Bywater at the time and a trusted local and world-traveler with high exposure has continuously recommended Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant which was only a few blocks away. Dempsey’s was closed on that day but it led us to a conversation of old-line New Orleans restaurants. Being in the restaurant business, we often get caught up in almost always visiting the new, “hip and hot” places, exclusively. That led the conversation to discussions of certain New Orleans institutions. We weren’t going into the French Quarter so that ruled out Galitoire’s, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, and the newly renovated Brennan’s. Our choices eventually narrowed to Charlie’s Steakhouse (circa 1932) in the Freret neighborhood of Uptown and Crescent City Steaks (circa 1934) on the edge of Bayou St. John near the racetrack.

We chose Crescent City Steaks because it was closer. The steak was prime beef and served in the classic New Orleans manner— in a pool of sizzling butter. Many believe Ruth’s Chris’ to be the inventor of that specific preparation, but Chris’ Steakhouse was only one among many old-line steakhouses in New Orleans who have always served prime beef on a plate of sizzling butter. The salad was what one would expect and the bread was serviceable. It was the onion rings that stood out. They were truly the absolute best onion rings I have ever eaten. Period. They were light, crisp, not overly breaded, and perfectly seasoned.

Frierson described the onion rings as, “clean and bright, not heavy or greasy.” He, too, agreed that they were the best onion rings he had ever eaten. We then began to discuss our favorite items we had eaten over the years while we ate our steaks.

I don’t’ remember the starches we ordered, but both were forgettable. It wasn’t until we were walking out of the restaurant that Frierson noticed a framed Southern Living column by Rick Bragg— a prodigious eater in his own right— about the potatoes au gratin at Crescent City Steaks. Bragg, the greatest living writer on the planet in this columnist’s opinion, stated, “They [potatoes au gratin] make a fat rib eye merely a ride-along, an after-thought. Molten cheese bubbles through a crisp, brown top as thin-sliced potatoes steam in cream. It is a dangerous dish, so hot that you can only pick at the crust as it cools. Staring at it, waiting, might be the longest five minutes of my life.”

I considered going back inside and ordering a side of potatoes au gratin for dessert, but it was getting late and the drive ahead was already going to be arduous with a belly full of beef and onions. I pledged in that moment to return and have a meal of onion rings and potatoes au gratin, hopefully adding another “best” to my list. I may, or may not, order a steak. It depends on how full I am after ordering seconds and thirds on onion rings and au gratin potatoes.

Viola Spinach

1/2 cup           Extra virgin olive oil
1/8 tsp            Crushed red pepper
1 TB                 Fresh garlic, minced
3 each             10 oz. boxes frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/2 tsp            Kosher salt
1/2 tsp            Fresh ground black pepper
pinch              Ground nutmeg
1 cup               Chicken stock

Heat the oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook for 5 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. Increase the heat to medium and add spinach, salt, black pepper and nutmeg. Make sure to break up the spinach after wringing dry. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Add the chicken stock and continue cooking for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Serve immediately.

Yield: 6-8 portions



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