Update, 11 a.m. Oct. 23:
Reine Creole Eatery adruptly closed. In an email, chef and co-owner Christina Barré blamed problems with the building and the lease. She said she is now looking for a new location to reopen the restaurant.
The classic neighborhood Creole restaurant is come-as-you-are casual, family run and, with a few exceptions, not the type to garner much attention outside its own neighborhood.
Yet these cafes shoulder a big job, representing the most accessible style of this city’s culinary heritage, the restaurant version of New Orleans home cooking.
That’s why I was excited to find Reine Creole Eatery, a new cafe taking up that mantle and also carrying it forward just a bit.
Reine Creole Eatery is a corner joint on a side street tucked just off Tulane Avenue by the courthouse. Assuming you can spot it, the place doesn’t look like much. But on the plate, it stands out in a few ways.
There are more vegetables, and a fresher touch with them; there’s an all-day brunch menu, responding to the local clamor for more breakfast options; and there’s an overall approach that shows how Creole flavors can lighten up and still taste like home.
Consider the Pontchartrain fish ($15), the plate lunch that put me on notice of something different going on here. It was made with blackened drum (not tilapia or another of the common substitutes). A rich shrimp and crawfish cream sauce dribbled over the top, running down to an unexpectedly colorful and fresh foundation of carrots and peas, ribbons of shaved string beans, fingerling potatoes and still more greens.
The side salad, so often a perfunctory serving of iceberg lettuce and dressing, instead starts with torn raw kale and builds from there.
At breakfast, there’s an egg white omelet ($8) next to the traditional pain perdu ($6), and eggs Benedict ($7) made either with bacon and ham or avocado and spinach for a different track.
Reine, French for queen, was opened in September by Christina Barré and Iesha Bradley. The two women met while serving in the Navy, and they recently marked their 11th anniversary as a couple.
Bradley is from Chicago; Barré grew up in New Orleans East in a family with a long history in Creole cooking. One branch used to run Pampy’s Creole Kitchen, the 7th Ward restaurant which, in its pre-Katrina heyday, was known as much for local politics as local cooking.
Creole can be a hard term to define, even when you narrow it to the culinary realm, but Barré has a personal interpretation.
“Creole, to me, means the generations that came before me, the foundation,” she said. “I picked up my style from older people. I think that to get that Creole flavor, you have to go back to the legacy of the past generations. You can’t lose touch with that.”
This shows in the gumbo ($5), a big bowl with an earthy pulse of filé in a dark roux melding crab, shrimp, sausage and chicken. And it’s in the calas ($4), rice fritters with a long history in New Orleans that are also long overdue for a full revival.
The strongest drink on hand here is iced tea. They don’t even stock soda, eschewing the sugary stuff as out of touch with their food.
“People have been surprised with what we’re doing here,” said Bradley. “That’s been the biggest reward so far, to know you’re giving people something that gets them coming back.”
Barré and Bradley got their start in business together last year with a pop-up they ran periodically from the pint-sized kitchen at Aline Street Beer Garden, where they field-tested recipes.
In September, they took over an address that’s seen a string of businesses lately, including a cafe called Next to Eat (the old sign still hangs over the door).
The area they chose has seen heightened interest since the huge hospital complexes have taken shape nearby.
Businesses and houses are being redeveloped in anticipation of their draw. But Barré said the location mostly appealed to them because of the people already in the neighborhood.
“One of my heroes is Leah Chase,” she said. “She brought fine dining to a lower class area, a lower income neighborhood and she showed a different way of doing things. I think we can do that here.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.