To be in the restaurant business and to live only 115 miles from one of the top three restaurant cities in America (#1 in my book) has been an embarrassment of good fortune for 58 years. Even before I got into this line of work, I benefitted from living just a few miles north of New Orleans. I grew up eating all across the Crescent City. As a young child, my mother would drive my brother and me down several times each year to eat in that city’s great restaurants.
Being a restaurateur this close to New Orleans is akin to an Alpine skier living slope side. Well, maybe not slope side, but one village over where the tourists aren’t visiting, and the cost of living is lower.
As a passionate student of restaurants, I have watched the New Orleans food scene evolve since the 1960s. When I was a kid, the old-line restaurants, Galitoire’s, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, and Brennan’s ruled the culinary scene. The menus were classical French in nature with heavy Creole influences. Most of the chefs were European. Actually, in those days most restaurants in America weren’t considered legit without a temperamental European man throwing pans across the kitchen.
In the 1970s, Commander’s Palace brought Paul Prudhomme on board and the cuisine started to shift towards American-based and locally sourced. Around the time Alice Waters, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne were legitimizing American chefs and local cuisine across the country, the dining scene seemed to shift in New Orleans, too.
By the late 1980s, two of the early masters of that school were Prudhomme protégé, Frank Brigtsen and Susan Spicer. Both, heroes of mine, mentors of mine (whether they know it or not), and to my thinking, the reigning torchbearers of New Orleans Creole cuisine. They are each, without question, the best of what New Orleans has to offer.
I have written of Brigtsen often. He is the epitome of a classic New Orleans chef/restaurateur. He still runs his restaurant from his kitchen on a daily basis and has forgotten more about cooking than I will ever know. Spicer, in my mind, is his equal, and I think Frank would be the first to agree (though Brigtsen is so humble he would defer).
I have been a fan of Spicer since her days running the kitchen at the small French Quarter hideaway, The Bistro at the Maison De Ville. In the early days of the Purple Parrot, when I was spending 90 hours a week in the kitchen, I would take a rare night off and make special trips down from Hattiesburg to eat at the Bistro at the Maison De Ville. Those trips always provided bounteous inspiration.
After her stint at the Maison DeVille, Spicer ventured out on her own and opened Bayona on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter. It was there that her culinary star began to rise, and rightly so.
Susan Spicer is a true talent and an original. Bayona is still a mainstay of fine dining in New Orleans. The salad section alone is worth the price of Spicer’s book, “Crescent City Cooking.” She was the opening force behind Herbsaint and has opened several other concepts across the city. Though my favorite Susan Spicer establishment— and truly one of my favorite restaurants in all of New Orleans— is Rosedale.
Rosedale is tucked away in a small building that used to house a police precinct in a neighborhood that— until I started to research this column— I mistakenly called Mid City, but it is actually the Navarre neighborhood. The current building was constructed in 1936 and moved to its current location in 1951 on land that once housed the orphanage where Louis Armstrong learned to play the trumpet.
At Rosedale the “energy” is good.
I love everything about Rosedale. They serve real food, sans pretension. It’s small, it’s casual, it’s off of the beaten path, and the dishes that come from that tiny kitchen are excellent. Seriously excellent. The menu is small and manageable enough to be filled with hits. But for me, one dish stands out among all others— bbq shrimp.
Pascal Manale’s may be the birthplace of bbq shrimp— and Manale’s has my favorite oyster bar in town— but if I am going to eat bbq shrimp, then I go to the place that I believe is the gold standard for that dish, Rosedale. No other restaurant even comes close. Period. End of discussion.
Of all of the top dishes in New Orleans cuisine that are uniquely New Orleans— gumbo, po boys, red beans and rice, beignets, Bananas Foster, Oysters Rockefeller, and bbq shrimp, to name just a few— great debates are held to determine who has the best po boy, who has the finest gumbo, and so on. I would challenge anyone who has ever eaten the bbq shrimp at Rosedale to name a better tasting bbq shrimp dish in town. It can’t be done.
Brigtsen’s background was from the Prudhomme school. Spicer earned her chops in classical French kitchens around the city and in Europe. That classical French background shows up at Bayona, but her New Orleans culinary roots are deep in the vibe at Rosedale.
Spicer, too, still works the kitchens of her restaurants. The last time I was in Rosedale, she walked off of the line to talk to me about her bbq shrimp recipe. One gets the feeling she works without a press agent and publicist (refreshing these days) and all of the recognition and acclaim she has received has been earned through hard work, sweat, long hours, dedication, and sheer will to survive in an industry that can be brutal and unforgiving.
And one of the most brutal and unforgiving cities for restaurants is New Orleans. It’s my theory that the comeback from this virus shutdown is going to be more challenging than the comeback from Katrina. If for no other reason than there were twice as many restaurants in town when the pandemic hit as when the levies broke in 2005.
Though it will be chefs and operators such as Brigtsen and Spicer who will prevail. And it will be dishes such as the Rosedale BBQ Shrimp that will be among the many, many reasons.