Thursday, March 1, 2012

New Orleans Trip #3: Anita and Clarence and Coop's Place

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No restaurant is universally beloved. But that doesn't mean you can't ever get a general sense of consensus. Usually, if you disregard the fluffy admirers and the snarling naysayers, you'll wind up with a useful upshot.

But not always. Some restaurants get all Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas. Detractors seem perfectly knowledgable and solid, but so are boosters. You come away persuaded that the restaurant is a horrible pit admired only by complete ditzes...and it's also a treasured miracle gratuitously knocked by knee-jerk naysayers. One side's either lying or stupid, but damned if anyone can decide which.

Coop's Place (1109 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA) is the perfect example. Read Chowhound, Yelp, and blogs, and you'll see that it's a sloppy, crappy joint doted on by drunken tourists mesmerized by an evening spent away from the usual TGIFridays or Outback Steakhouse. And it's a temple for the sort of soulful real-deal Nawlins food snobs are sadly unable to appreciate.

Most AH/CT situations - not counting those where people are out-and-out lying, e.g. when insiders are shilling or aggrieved ex-workers are slamming - can be attributable to one or more of these factors:

1. Cuisine Miscomprehension
Typical examples: finding Sichuan too greasy or Thai too spicy; complaining about "burnt" crust with New Haven brick oven pizza or overly thick crust with Greek pizza. Not understanding that many cultures serve all dishes at once or have a more relaxed pace of service. Etc. etc.

This is always a problem with authentic eateries in areas where diners are accustomed to more gringo-friendly versions.

2. Personal Preference
Pizza crust must be thin. BBQ must fall off the bone. Grease is good. Dessert must not be sweet. Portion size either way. And, above all, pricing (I've given up tracking all the ways people assign value to restaurant meals, but one thing's certain: they never mesh).

3. Downhill
Places tend to decline over time, as kitchens get sloppy or bored, staff changes, owners cut corners, etc. Restaurants are moving targets, and people often chime in with highly outdated opinions.

4. Chef Roulette
When the top chef takes a night off, quality plummets. Or, even when he's there, only the stuff he himself prepares is worthy (i.e. other kitchen staff are poorly-trained and/or untalented).

5. Menu Minefields
You've got to know what to order. Some things are great, others wretched.

6. Refinement Snobbery
Thin, grilled hamburger patties, for example, with their fast food connotations, will never seem as high-status as thicker pub burgers. No matter how delicious one might be, it will always rate lower among certain eaters. There are innumerable ways in which cooking can telegraph status, and some people can't help but rate on that basis. Which, in turn, is why certain restaurants have always fallen all over themselves to telegraph status in every conceivable way. And it's why fussier places get taken more seriously, even if the fussing is mostly cosmetic.

(This, in fact, is a prime distinction between foodies and chowhounds. Foodies go crazy for pedigreed ingredients and spotlit sizzle. Chowhounds fully appreciate Niman Ranch pork, but we don't respect a fantastic mystery meat taco any less. Deliciousness is deliciousness...period.)

I'd seen photos of food at Coop's Place, and it appeared sloppily rough-hewn and great. There are plenty of refinement snobs in New Orleans, so I assumed that's what had turned people off. But I ordered a sampler plate (cup of seafood gumbo, shrimp Creole, Cajun fried chicken, red beans & rice with sausage, and rabbit & sausage jambalaya), and while nearly all of it was watery, careless, pukey garbage (I was too revolted to photograph straight-on, hence the peripheral shot above), the fried chicken was absolutely awesome. Spot-on. I could have gnawed the bone. Unsurprisingly, it evaporated before I was able to shoot a photo.

So let's call this a #5 with a strong likelihood of a fake-out dab of #6, only not really. On the other hand, plenty of knowledgable people rave over the gumbo and jambalaya and stuff, so maybe there's some #3.

The service was far worse than "bad". Here's a word I've never before used to describe service: sadistic. The bartender, who didn't seem to like the looks of me, treated me with blatant contempt. And, to make absolutely certain his aversion was clear, he went out of his way to give comically solicitous service to the patrons (both first-timers) immediately to my left and right.

It had been a long, long time since I'd stiffed a tip. But in the days ahead, I was forced to recalibrate. In retrospect, I'd rate the guy only slightly below average in a town rife with the nastiest, most unapologetically hateful bartenders I've ever run into (in local places as well as tourist haunts like this one).

Read the next installment (#4)

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