I had not heard of Ruffino’s on the River in Lafayette before, but I had discovered it while planning my trip, and was attracted by the menu and the waterfront setting, so I decided to eat dinner there before the James Hunter concert. When I arrived at the restaurant, I immediately noticed the stash of wood outside the main entrance, which is always something I like to see, as it shows that the restaurant uses a wood-burning stove to cook. The outdoor deck had a beautiful view of the Vermillion River, so I chose to sit out there in the sunshine. I tried the Fish Katie, which was a fish fillet with a cream sauce made with lump crabmeat, and it was absolutely amazing, as were all the accompaniments. The food, the setting and the service was impeccable.
After the second-line, I was both hungry and exhausted, but food was harder to find than you might think. New Orleans is still a bit of a strange place on Sundays, and more restaurants are closed on the Sabbath than you would expect in a city known as a party town and convention place. After running by several places which proved to be closed, I found myself out on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in the suburb of Metairie, and came to Don’s Seafood Hut, the New Orleans branch of a Louisiana chain based in Lafayette. One of the surprising things about New Orleans is that while seafood is ubiquitous and plentiful, most of it is fried, and Don’s is no exception. I had a catfish and fried shrimp combo, and was very impressed with what I got. Next door is the legendary Gambino’s Bakery, which is famous for, besides po-boy bread, king cakes, which are a big deal at this time of year. Yet I resisted the temptation to stop there, and headed back into the city.
McElroy’s Seafood used to be called McElroy’s Harbor House, but that was back when the restaurant was in Biloxi, right by the Small Craft Harbor on the mainland across from Deer Island. It had a great reputation for seafood then, but hurricanes have not been kind to the venerable old restaurant, and when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the building, the restaurant relocated across the rebuilt bridge to the arts community of Ocean Springs. In many ways, the move was for the best, because the new location, very near the site of the original French settlement of Biloxi, backs up to Indian Bayou, with lovely water views through the big picture windows. I’m reliably told the seafood is as good as ever, but the surprise here is breakfast. Amazing breakfast, I might add. Nothing too unusual, pretty much the standard omelettes, bacon and eggs, yet delicious, accompanied by the water views mentioned above, and also with one unique coastal addition to the menu, New Orleans-style beignets, which are hard to resist, even after an omelette. And now McElroy’s has reopened in Biloxi at their former location, high off the ground in case of another hurricane. Either location is worth checking out for lunch, dinner or even breakfast.
Mississippi might evoke images of the old South, or the Delta blues perhaps, or maybe the urbanity of Jackson, but in the coastal counties, Mississippi is a different world altogether, a region characterized by French and Spanish influence and the beautiful beaches, bays and bayous. Devastated by 1969’s Hurricane Camille, some areas had only fully recovered a few years before Katrina wiped everything out again in 2005. Perhaps no town was harder hit than Bay St. Louis, the county seat of Hancock County, Mississippi’s closest county to New Orleans. The little town has always had a peculiar charm, but since Katrina it has become a community of art galleries, unique shops and fine restaurants, while its proximity to the Crescent City and its waterfront setting make it especially attractive as a weekend or summer getaway for New Orleanians. The downtown area offers a number of intriguing restaurant choices, and all of them were packed to the rafters with Saints fans on the night I was there, but I decided on Trapani’s Eatery, a place which I chose because I recall hearing the name back in my youth (the restaurant opened in 1994), because of its bayfront location, and because of its exceptionally good reviews on Yelp.
Trapani’s is a rather casual two-story restaurant on Beach Boulevard with a nautical theme and decor. Not particularly fancy, it features an upstairs bar, and a fair amount of outdoor tables, a few of which were occupied, as the weather was fairly warm for January, although windy. The menu encompasses both seafood and steaks, but of course seafood is the big draw here, and deservedly so. I chose the Paneed Trout Eatery, a fancy version of trout almondine that was absolutely amazing. Besides the almonds and butter, and the lightly-breaded, pan-fried trout, the dish featured white wine, lump crab, shrimp and a hollandaise sauce. It came accompanied with angel-hair alfredo pasta with freshly-grated parmesan cheese, and toasted bread. Trapani’s also offers po-boys, and steaks which I will have to try on a future visit. Service was friendly and attentive, and that was true even though the place was packed due to the Saints play-off game on the flat-screen TV. Trapani’s is definitely a must-visit when in Bay St. Louis.
116 North Beach Blvd
Bay St. Louis, MS 39520
Perhaps no restaurant’s opening has been more widely awaited in Memphis than Kelly English’s new Second Line concept next door to his acclaimed Restaurant Iris. As the name suggests, The Second Line is a gourmet casual take on New Orleans cuisine, located in a cheerfully-restored house at Monroe and Cooper in Overton Square. Pictures on the walls and video loops of Louis Armstrong and New Orleans scenes reinforce the theme of the restaurant, as does the menu’s emphasis on po-boys and seafood, but while The Second Line is a more casual restaurant than Iris, it is not by any means inexpensive or a typical bar and grill. With only a dollar’s difference in price between the shrimp po-boy and the shrimp dinner, I opted for the latter, and was quite pleased. The shrimp were fairly large, fried in a well-seasoned batter, and, somewhat unusually, had had their tails removed, so every bit was edible. The accompanying french fries were a thing of beauty, thinly cut (but not shoestring) and fried to a dark golden brown, and also well-seasoned. Although by now I was thoroughly full, I was offered dessert, and bread pudding (which was my mother’s favorite) seems to be the signature, which I will have to try on my next visit. If you go, a couple of cautions are in order. One is that the parking lot across the street, which used to welcome Restaurant Iris patrons, is now off limits to customers of Iris or The Second Line, and if you park there, you will get towed. Parking is scarce, but you can park over in the Overton Square lot (at least for now) and walk over. The other is that The Second Line is quite expensive. The food is very good (and I am sure that it costs a great deal to fly in seafood from the Gulf), but The Second Line is more a place for a special night out than a place that can be frequented regularly. But it is cheaper than driving to New Orleans when you have the urge for Louisiana cuisine.
New Orleans really is an island, and approaching it from any direction, you must cross water, or at least swamps, so from Ponchatoula south to LaPlace, I-55 is strictly bridges, threaded between Lake Maurepas to the west and the much larger Lake Pontchartrain to the east. The area is beautiful, but very remote, with only one community to speak of, a place called Manchac, named for the Choctaw Indian word that means a pass, because the town is on the pass between the two lakes. Manchac consists of a church, a sheriff’s substation, a couple of fishing camps, a waterfront bar accessible only by boat, about 50 or so houses, and a world-famous restaurant called Middendorf’s.
Middendorf’s Seafood Restaurant has been around since 1934, and the name of the game there is catfish. They have many other options, and they offer both thick and thin catfish, but it is the unique, paper-thin fried catfish which has made Middendorf’s famous, and justifiably so. It is light, flaky and delicious, without even a trace of greasiness, accompanied by equally-good french fries. There is a full bar as well, and an outdoor deck and bar that is quite popular in good weather, since it has a beautiful view of Pass Manchac.
Unfortunately, at one time the future of Middendorf’s was in doubt. The historic restaurant has been buffeted by fires and floods, including a particularly destructive flood caused by Hurricane Ike, but the owners have rebuilt from each setback, and remain a favorite with people around Lake Pontchartrain as well as tourists on their way to or from the Big Easy. Middendorf’s is open for lunch and dinner on Wednesday through Sunday.
Middendorf’s Seafood Restaurant
30160 Hwy 51 S Manchac
Akers, LA 70421
One of the beauties of Monroe, Louisiana is the abundance of water. Downtown sits on the Ouachita River, and the north and east are along Bayou DeSiard, so lovely waterfront views are everywhere, and several restaurants in the city take advantage of that, including the Waterfront Grill, built on the shore of Bayou DeSiard near the campus of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. For over 20 years, the Waterfront Grill has been treating Monroyans to gorgeous sunsets and some of the best food in Louisiana, from seafood of all kinds to filet mignon, to casual sandwiches and burgers. True perfection in restaurants is rare. Sometimes good food is marred by indifferent service, or an attractive setting is ruined by mediocre food or high prices, but the Waterfront Grill offers consistently good food, with impeccable service in a lovely setting at prices that might not be cheap, but are reasonable. And in 19 visits or so over as many years, I have never once had a disappointment. Few restaurants can meet that standard.
5201 DeSiard Street
Monroe, LA 71203
This year has not been a good one in Clarksdale as far as restaurants, so those attending the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival actually had to venture out of town a ways if they wanted an upscale dining experience. I decided to try Crawdad’s in Merigold, a place that was recommended by the Delta Bohemian website. The little town of Merigold, in Bolivar County, is probably best-known for being the home of McCarty’s Pottery, which is world-famous and made from the unique clays of the Mississippi Delta. It is also the home of Po’ Monkey’s Juke Joint on the outskirts of town. But Crawdad’s, nearly a block long, is the center of attention on weekend nights in Merigold. The menu consists of steaks and seafood, and there is a bar and a stage where live music takes place. The inside ambiance is largely that of a hunting lodge, with various ducks, deer heads and even raccoons on the walls. I ordered the 8-ounce bacon-wrapped filet mignon, and was pleased. It was charcoal broiled, and had been prepared with what tasted like a fruit-based marinade. Prices are a little steep perhaps by Delta standards, but of course it is an upscale dining experience, and worth checking out.
Back up the road from Lafitte is Crown Point, a small community whose main attractions are swamp tours and the Restaurant des Familles. This waterfront restaurant is more reminiscent of restaurants from the Lafayette or Lake Charles area than it is of those in New Orleans, and the food is excellent. Although the menu includes steaks, the obvious draw here is fried seafood, and the fried shrimp dinner I had was truly great, the breading perfectly seasoned. The menu also features desserts such as bread pudding and coffee. Prices are reasonable, and Restaurant des Familles is worth the drive from New Orleans. The only disappointment? Perhaps due to the rain, I caught no glimpse of the two alligators that my waitress said usually appear in the swamp behind the restaurant!