Awakening a Creole Holiday Tradition
The Creoles knew how to ring in the holidays, and their tradition of reveillon feasts continues today at restaurants throughout New Orleans.
No one ever accused New Orleans’ 18th and 19th century Creole aristocracies of not following their own advice: Laissez les bons temps roulez – Let the good times roll.
These folks could throw a party with the best of them. But they were also a pious lot – spending almost as much time at Mass as they did in their favorite eating and drinking establishments.
During the Christmas holidays, the Creoles’ religious fervor and their love of entertaining came together in the traditional reveillon dinner, celebrated on two separate occasions during this holiest of seasons. The first had quasi-religious overtones as family and friends gathered after Midnight Mass every Christmas Eve to thank God for his bounty.
How did they do it? In a bountiful manner over a multicourse feast accompanied by the host’s finest vintage wines.
The second reveillon (French for awakening), held each New Year’s Eve, had little to do with religion and everything to do with celebration. Five courses stretched into seven; New Year’s Eve stretched into New Year’s Day, and the wine still flowed.
The Creoles’ excesses are largely memory today, except for the tradition of reveillon. In December, visitors to New Orleans can feast like it was 1850 again, and the only religious connotation is in the devoutness of the gourmets flocking to restaurants dressing up their tables with elaborate presentations.
Currently, some 50 restaurants offer special menus – both traditional and contemporary, and at prices ranging from $34 to $110. However, it is only fitting to look at a few of the Crescent City’s most venerable Creole establishments.
For most of the year, the focus is on legendary breakfasts at Brennan’s, the candy-cane pink Royal Street restaurant. During the holidays, however, poinsettias line the entryway, candles reflect the glow of chandeliers and masses of greenery line the mantels in private dining rooms as thoughts of reveillon take over.
Chef Slade Rushing’s ambitious four-course menu, priced at $85, proves anew why he is New Orleans’ current culinary maestro.
You’ll start with a Brennan’s specialty, turtle soup with sherry, jazzed up with grated egg and brown butter spinach. Course two includes seared foie gras and lobster glazed root vegetables, and celery root. The third course features roasted young French chicken in its juice, with black truffles, mirliton (a Louisiana vegetable similar to squash) and oyster spoonbread.
The meal will end with another Brennan’s specialty, Bananas Foster with vanilla bean ice cream.
Arguably New Orleans most famous restaurant, Galatoire’s, has been a Bourbon Street landmark since 1905. While it’s still nigh impossible to get a downstairs table at lunch on Fridays (they are booked by local regulars), strategic planning will ensure you don’t miss Galatoire’s reveillon.
Ceiling fans whir above black and white tile floors echoing with the footsteps of tuxedo-clad waiters bearing trays laden with the restaurant’s signature dishes.
This year’s reveillon menu features Louisiana delicacies from both land and water. Diners start with a choice of shrimp scampi risotto or crab maison salad with baby arugula and pickled carrots.
The second course offers two Bayou State favorites – turtle soup with sherry, or a duck and andouille sausage gumbo, a specialty of the Cajun country west of New Orleans.
For the mains, choose between petit Marchand de Vin with sautéed brussels sprouts or grilled pork roast with wilted spinach, dried cherries, Brabant potatoes and Creole mustard vinaigrette. If you have room for dessert, there’s a choice of sweet potato hot pie or chocolate creme brulee.
The cost of Galatoire’s reveillon dinner depends on which entrée you select ($40 – $59); the ambiance of dining in one of the city’s most esteemed Creole restaurants is free.
Like Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s is a classic French Quarter establishment and has been ever since Count Arnaud Cazenave first opened the doors in 1917.
The restaurant goes all out with an extravagant holiday décor and an equally extravagant (although not in price at $49) reveillon menu.
For an amuse, there is Daube glace, a traditional jellied stew made with beef and veal stock molded into a form, and served with croutons. A first course offers a choice between Shrimp ravigote with fried green tomatoes and a butter lettuce salad with dill sugarcane vinaigrette, followed by a second course of Creole onion soup.
For the third course, you can choose from three mains: Duck a L’Orange with roasted root vegetables, seared flank steak, or a Creole specialty, Courtbouillon, a Louisiana Gulf drum fish in tomato puree with Gulf shrimp and oysters served with Louisiana popcorn rice.
To end the meal, there’s white chocolate peppermint mousse cake or sticky toffee pudding with praline mousse.
If you really want to get into the reveillon spirit, channel your inner Creole aristocrat and order a café brulot, but don’t sit too close when the waiter comes to prepare it tableside as you might be in danger of losing your eyebrows.
Brulot is French for highly seasoned – although here, the alternate meaning might be incendiary, as pyrotechnics play a part in preparation. A coffee drink which also includes brandy or cognac, cinnamon, cloves, sugar and an orange peel cut into a long, spiraling ribbon, the concoction is placed in a silver bowl and then set afire. The café brulot is robust and delicious; the presentation is pure theater and even more delicious.
Leave the French Quarter and take a streetcar ride past the festively decorated antebellum homes on St. Charles Avenue to the quintessential Garden District gem, Commander’s Palace.
Commander’s, which gave the culinary world both Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, remains one of the city’s most popular eateries for locals and tourists alike. Be forewarned: this is not the place to go for a quiet, contemplative evening. All of Commander’s various dining rooms – spread across two floors, ring with the sounds of the season and hum with activity.
This year’s reveillon menu – a seven-course feast – is priced at $100 and should please even the most demanding gourmand.