Friday, January 29, 2010

A taste of history and home at Le Citron Bistro

Situated on the lonely corner of Religious and Orange Streets in the Lower Garden District lays the unassuming Creole cottage that houses Le Citron Bistro.  I can’t tell you how many times I have passed this restaurant on my way home from the CBD and wondered about it.  How long has it been there?  What kind of food do they serve?  Does anyone know about it? Surrounded by warehouses, dilapidated structures and a concrete manufacturer right across the street, it seemed an odd place for a bistro, but this unusual location is what finally peaked my interest.  This is my 22nd cheat and I am down 48 pounds, as I managed to lose two of the pounds I gained last week.

Because I wanted to be prepared, especially after past mistakes (what’s the saying, fool me twice?), I Googled Le Citron Bistro and discovered some rather interesting tidbits about the property and management.  In 2004, the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission voted to designate the double Creole cottage at 1539 Religious Street as a recognized historic property.

According to the restaurant’s website, Architectural historian Eleanor Burke spoke in favor of the designation, stating that because of the construction type, the property at 1539 Religious Street indicates that it was built sometime between 1810 and 1813, making it the oldest known structure in New Orleans above Canal Street.  Located in what was once known as the Faubourg de la Course, the double Creole cottage becomes more interesting because the area has retained very few cohesive streetscapes and no other buildings prior to 1830 have survived.

Even more fascinating, while owner David Baird was renovating in 2004-2005, he discovered several architectural clues that might indicate that the building is even older, dating back to Jesuit structures of the 1600’s.  Baird uncovered wooden pegs as opposed to nails, bricks over an original doorway that are over 9 inches long (unusual length for the 1800’s), a remnant of a Spanish roof tile similar to a Jesuit site in Bolivia, and the overall similarity of the architecture to those of other Jesuit structures of the 17th century.

Other than the fantastic cuisine, the most significant reason for my move from California to New Orleans almost 7 years ago was the incredible history that permeates daily life here.  I couldn’t wait to visit Le Citron Bistro just to step inside a structure that has been lovingly restored to how it might have looked more than 300 years ago!  At this point I didn’t even care about the food, it was going to be a trip back in time and a chance to absorb history right through my fingertips and the soles of my shoes.

John and I arrived at Le Citron Bistro at 5:40 p.m., a little earlier than we should have.  The restaurant actually opens at 6:00 p.m. even though the website indicated 5:30 p.m.  All in all, it was no big deal to while away 15 minutes taking photos of the exterior and walking around the entire structure before the doors opened.  We wandered in through the front door, wondering at the interior of the building replete with exposed brick walls and high wood beamed ceilings.  Even the uneven floors were made of old bricks that looked as if they had been polished to a high sheen.

A lone server suddenly appeared and quickly steered us to a small dining room that we enjoyed all to ourselves for the entire meal.  The mood was unexpectedly romantic with flames dancing in the dining room fireplace, the lights set low and a highly unobtrusive waitress.  We were able to order quickly from the very simple menu and although the wait seemed a tad long (after all, we were one of two parties in the entire restaurant) our appetizers finally arrived.

We had selected two dishes; I wanted to try the Goose, Green Onion and Andouille Gumbo while John was interested in their BBQ Shrimp.  Now, I have never eaten goose before, but that gumbo was so rich with a medium roux and thick pieces of goose meat and sausage…I am pretty sure that is the best gumbo I have had so far.  That is exactly what I always thought gumbo should taste like.  Simply fantastic!  We were served warm, crusty, homemade rolls with our appetizers and we used them to soak up every last drop of that incredible gumbo. The BBQ Shrimp wasn’t as spicy or buttery as most I’ve tried, but the shrimp were huge, fresh and delicious.

After a rather long wait, our entrées arrived.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand there was only one server and judging by the quality of the food, everything was made to order…so I am not complaining.  I certainly wasn’t complaining when our dishes arrived either.  I selected the Catfish St. Jean Baptiste, which was fried catfish topped with lump crab meat salad fried sweet potato chips and steamed cauliflower and broccoli.  The thick, large piece of catfish was sweet and juicy on the inside and crispy with a nice thick batter on the outside.  With just a little lemon and salt, this simple fare was comforting and quite tasty.

On my request, John selected the Fried Chicken with Red Beans & Rice.  The chicken had a perfect scald on it and after one bite, I felt transported back to my Aunt’s kitchen (Aunt Edie was from South Carolina and made the best fried chicken and biscuits EVER).  Both entrees felt so comforting and folksy that along with the old cottage around us, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the calendar flip back several hundred years and found ourselves guests of some Creole woman who had invited us for supper.

Although neither of us could finish our dishes, I couldn’t resist ordering their only dessert, a simple bread pudding that, as the waitress pointed out with a sinful grin, had just come piping hot out of the oven.  The pudding, like everything else, was simple and perfect, laden with a light caramel sauce, butter and cinnamon.
As we left the fires and comfort of Le Citron Bistro, I thought of how I will never drive past their doors again and wonder...I'll stop in and get some gumbo!

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