If Dante's Paradiso had a scent, it might be the aromatic evening cloud that drapes over the intersection of St. Philip and Chartres streets -- thick whiffs of hot garlic, roasting herbs and browned bread that drift somehow from the looming building on the corner. For months, I wanted to believe that the nearly windowless warehouse space contained some sort of savory perfumery instead of a restaurant. Then came my first excursion through Irene's Cuisine's chain of rooms, which disclosed a scene as fantastical as those smells. And although it would be stretching an analogy to suggest that Irene's Italian-come-to-New-Orleans cuisine is how Paradiso would taste, a few dishes could tease a seraph or two.
Irene's takes anyone -- halo or not -- willing to wait without reservations, like the leathered and Mardi Gras beaded bikers who beat my party of four to the door one Saturday evening. The warder at the entrance instructed us to "continue on to the third room and see Sergio." He would be happy to seat us (in two hours). It was loud, with clangs from the kitchen to the left and the clutter of braided garlic, Italian crockery and hanging copper cookware to the right, and his directions seemed to deny the cramped thoroughfare.
Soon enough, another hungry group pushed us onward past a string of "excuse me's" and "welcome's" into the second, equally narrow but more formal dining room of wide striped wallpaper and low ceilings. Runners ducked around us with soft-shell crabs fried with a leggy battered dance, and cocktail servers tilted trays of martinis so as to avoid our stunned procession. Although confusing, this single-file odyssey allowed voyeuristic sweeps of both rooms: of servers in tuxedo shirts pouring hot soups from silver vessels, of rosemary trees planted in carved tomatoes and of wedges of espresso and cream that later contended with the airiest tiramisus in town.
The next slender space, Sergio's library piano lounge, looked like a room where Professor Plum could have clobbered Colonel Mustard with a candlestick. Low lights and a dusky feel seemed to encourage sales of single malts and red wine. The piano even played itself when the pianist went on break. A sort of purgatory between the street smells and the real deal, this room lay adjacent to what was possibly the most surreal room I've ever encountered in a restaurant.
Once we found the bustling maitre'd at his post beneath a Jesus statue, Sergio directed us into a covered garage of glaring light, sawdust air and cement surroundings. Here, we waited out the first of our two hours, on church pews with sequined women drinking champagne. Aside from the Italian classical music, the most bizarre fixture was a motionless security guard reading at a desk on the more barren side of a deep excavation pit. Since no one else seemed to notice the oddity, I relaxed with a Pernod aperitif. When in Rome ... .
Irene DiPietro and her son and chef, Nicholas Scalco, have a very loyal following. Once you get a table at Irene's, do as their fans do: turn the other cheek when the gratis bruscetta maces you with raw garlic, when a few brown leaves spoil your already limp Caesar salad and when a chocolate sorbet tastes more like prunes. When you get the one robotic server whose only advice is to order an unpleasant Chardonnay from Burgundy, make sure you land Dawain next time; when your duck is dry, suckle the crackled, honeyed skin, and if all the sodium gets to you, ask for more water.
The mother-son team will make it up with a buttery bisque of shrimp, corn and potato chunks soaked with salty, crustacean flavor. If that's not available, watch for specials like the delicious bog of sweet potato and spicy ground andouille soup, the fall-apart osso bucco with saffron risotto and the tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella salad that made a mockery of winter when I ordered it in February.
Then, try the Easter Island-ish arrangement of crispy chicken parts connected by a stream of olive oil, roasted garlic pebbles and rosemary twigs that sent my table into a primal impulse of flesh tearing and bone sucking. Lemon twisted into a beurre blanc enlivened a filet of black drum in the same way a rustic touch of French mustard stepped up the sweet duck and its accompanying wild rice. And some garlicky, just wilted spinach with dreamy crawfish tail linguine on the soft-shell crab entree was almost more verve than one plate could hold.
There's an appetizer at Irene's that -- alongside a loaf of the toasted sesame bread -- could account for the mouthwatering blasts out on St. Philip Street: three squishy mushroom caps sitting on golden, lemon butter-soaked croutons form a beatific vision. Packing two escargots each, they ooze with garlic juices. En route to the snails, a mini oyster fork stabs through a confetti of minced leek, red pepper and more garlic. Although it's difficult to measure heavenly things by earthly standards, this is edible perfume.