When I called to arrange our interview, JoAnn Clevenger, Owner and General Manager of Upperline Restaurant, cautioned me that she likes to digress. I soon discover that she wasn't kidding. And what wonderful digressions they are. She doesn't go off on barely relevant tangents or self-centered soliloquies: instead, I'm quickly learning that her anecdotes and vignettes illuminate and fill out the main subjects of our conversation.
For example, as soon as I sit down in her Uptown New Orleans restaurant to talk about her menu, she shows me a technicolor menu from The Blue Room of The Roosevelt Hotel, a grand old hotel in downtown New Orleans that I know well from its days as The Fairmont, as it was renamed in the mid-1960s. (Damaged by Katrina, the hotel will re-open in 2009 as The Roosevelt.) Part of Clevenger's massive collection of menus, The Blue Room's bill of fare dates from about 1960 and some of the odd items—what restaurant or night club now offers celery on its menu?—astonish me as much as the prices. Before we get too carried away talking about this old menu, however, my host reins in my curiosity and asks me what I would like to eat.
That's an easy question: I tell her I would like to try the Fried Green Tomatoes with Shrimp Remoulade. It's the first item on the Upperline menu and deserves this pride of place: Clevenger invented it and, according to the New York Times, now "any restaurant in the country serious about its New Orleans street cred might have the dish on its menu." The recipe came in dream. In 1991 Clevenger heard that Fanny Flagg's novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, was to be adapted as a film, and she knew she wanted to put the dish on her menu. There's nothing innovative about fried green tomatoes alone, so Clevenger noodled on a twist for three or four days until she awoke with the solution: Upperline would put shrimp remoulade on top.
The appetizer is emblematic of Clevenger's food philosophy: she doesn't like homogeneity. The tomatoes are warm and succulent and the shrimp and remoulade are crisp and cold. While each element is perfectly fine on its own, combined they make for a little festival of mouthfeel. There are other examples of this approach on the Upperline menu, but Clevenger tells me about one dish that is safe for non-foodies to try at home: tomato soup. Everyone makes it and it tastes the same...boring. But add garlic croutons and the taste and texture of each spoonful varies with the size of the crouton and amount of soup.
The key to New Orleans food, Clevenger says, is that "bite after bite doesn't taste alike."
I make sure to vary the combination of shrimp, remoulade sauce, and fried tomato in every bite of my starter. And, per my host's suggestion, I complement the experience with a Pinot Gris from Belle Vallée, Oregon.
Upperline is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and two related facts stand out for me. One, the kitchen is on only its fourth chef. The first chef—and Clevenger's business partner—was her son, Jason. The current boss of the kitchen is Chef Ken Smith, who started at Upperline in 1991 as an apprentice while enrolled in the Delgado Culinary Arts program.
The other remarkable feature of the restaurant's quarter-century is that, until last year, Clevenger was at the host's station at the door, meeting and greeting guests five nights a week. Given Upperline's strong local following—and a considerable number of out-of-towners who visit regularly—I ask Clevenger if she is good with names. Not so much with names, she says, but she remembers faces and where diners were seated when they visited. (Now I understand why she asked where I was sitting when I mentioned earlier that I had been to the restaurant recently with my good friends Anne, Norbert, and Rob Delph.)
And then she tells me the backstory of another appetizer, the Spicy Crispy Oysters St. Claude.
When visitors used to ask her to take them out for a typical New Orleans meal, she would often go to Restaurant Mandich, an unglamourous eatery in the Bywater neighborhood. At Mandich's, the oysters were fried in corn flour, put back onto the half shell, then drizzled with a garlic bordelaise sauce. Clevenger wanted to pay tribute to the dish at Upperline and, as with the fried green tomatoes, she needed an original spin. This time, Chef Ken came through with the idea.
Clevenger had been working to interest her chef in Moroccan food, a North African cuisine in which preserved lemons figure prominently. For the oyster topping, the chef decided to throw a whole lemon, minus the seeds, into a Cuisinart. The peel contributes oil and aroma, the pulp delivers tartness, and the pith adds bitterness. Clevenger stresses that you have to work with the balance—too much pith and the bitterness ruins the concoction: "it's an art and a science," she says. Add some paprika, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, and butter. (I think there's another ingredient or two, slyly hinted at, that go unmentioned.) Blend it together and serve atop the fried oysters, like Mandich's, on the half shell.
Clevenger interrupts herself and asks me if I would like to order an entrée. I had been thinking about that—last time I was here I had the lamb (delicious) and was looking forward to trying something new—but I'm captivated by the story of the Oysters St. Claude. I decide to forgo an entrée—one has to make certain sacrifices in life—and ask for the Oysters St. Claude as a second appetizer.
Book talk has been sprinkled through our food talk all evening. On the phone, Clevenger had laughed in delight when I told her my email address riffs on the name "Binx Bolling," my homage to the protagonist of Walker Percy's great novel, The Moviegoer. And when we sat down she presented me with a copy of John M. Barry's acclaimed Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. Now she shares with me a couple of handouts that are available to diners: one is a list of New Orleans bookstores and the other is an idiosyncratic compilation of worthwhile wine & cheese shops, antique stores, museums and galleries...and bookstores.
Clevenger mentions that Julia Reed, the writer-journalist whose portfolio includes food writing, is signing her new book at one of the bookstores soon. Reed is from Greenville, Mississippi, where Walker Percy spent part of his youth, and now lives in New Orleans. I mention that I hope to interview Reed, and Clevenger says she hasn't yet seen the new book but tells me that Reed would be a great subject.
While in a waiting room a few days later, I will open the current issue of Vogue. In it is an excerpt from Reed's The House on First Street. I'm barely into the article when I come across a sentence about one of Reed's visits to New Orleans (in 1991, I think) when she dines "at Upperline for the first time and [hears] Miles Davis for the last." Small world. Of course, I now need to try to complete the circle by dining with Reed, who has her own connections with the family of Walker Percy.
My Oysters St. Claude are served, and the topping doesn't look like it ever came near a lemon. In fact, it bears some resemblance to sun-dried tomatoes. And it doesn't even taste particularly lemony, though the lemon flavor comes through...intermittently. Like the lady says, every bite is different. I'm skeptical of claims about the aphrodisiac powers of oysters, but the Oysters St. Claude has certainly enhanced my love...of fried oysters. The Fried Green Tomatoes may consider me fickle, but I have a new favorite appetizer at Upperline.
My evening chez Clevenger passes with more food talk and book talk and digressions into New Orleans history and culture. Anyone writing a social and cultural history of New Orleans in the latter twentieth century should beg for a few days of JoAnn Clevenger's time.
It's that time of the evening for the last major decision: will I be having dessert? I'm not on a diet but I will have to go on one soon if I continue to dine as well as I have tonight. I'm on the verge of declining when Clevenger oh-so-innocently asks, "Did you like chocolate sundaes as a child?" Of course I did. She promises an adult version: Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream with semi-sweet (that's the adult twist) dark chocolate syrup. How about a small one?, she asks.
I have a stock answer for charming women who tempt me with such worldly pleasures: "I will if you will." Clevenger smiles.
That line never fails.
© Marshal Zeringue