NEW ORLEANS – The sun started its descent as the cab rolled alongside the Mississippi River through the Marigny and into the Bywater. A soft breeze kissed us as we stepped out onto the sidewalk on Poland Street. The evening was perfect, but when we saw the peeling paint and the sagging wood, we had to wonder.
For all the breathless promises of a one-of-a-kind dining experience, Bacchanal didn’t look like much. A modest house long past its prime – if it ever had a prime to begin with. Then we stepped into the backyard and understood.
Christmas lights hung from the trees. Tables and chairs purchased at long-ago Blue Light Specials covered the yard. Flowers bloomed. A jazz band played in the corner. Wine and beer bottles swam in buckets of melting ice. The smells of roasting pork and grilling steak floated from the house. People drank and laughed and flitted from table to table like long-lost neighbors. We had come expecting a restaurant. What we found was a backyard cookout elevated to its highest form.
The Bacchanal experience begins inside that ramshackle house. There is beer and soda in the coolers on the left, but head for the wine racks. Whites and reds of every varietal are available at retail price – plus a $3 corkage fee. I grabbed a bottle of pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, filled my bucket with ice and headed to the backyard. Brett Michael Dykes, my New Orleans jungle guide, and Times-Picayune writers Jeff Duncan (Saints) and Brett Anderson (food critic) had already staked out a couple of tables. As my wine chilled to slightly below room temperature, Dykes and I headed to the window to order our food.
In the French Quarter, the pork shoulder chop I ordered would run about $25. At Bacchanal, it cost $12. It arrived juicy and smoky and succulent. I loved it, but I couldn’t help ogling the dish some of my fellow diners had ordered – flank steak with fingerling potatoes, whipped feta, duck fat and strawberries. Fortunately, I’m a man of large appetites, and the steak was a mere $14.
The food came on paper plates. We ate it with plastic utensils. No one complained. Cook a dish perfectly, and you render china, flatware and ostentatious presentation utterly unnecessary. Pack a backyard with food, jazz, fascinating people and potential new friends, and a run-down property can turn into a wonderland.