For a tradition that reaches so far back into the Creole heritage of New Orleans, reveillon has proved remarkably amenable to change.
Credit that to the gusto local chefs apply to the task of crafting special holiday menus, the Louisiana harvest at their disposal as cool weather settles in and even the changing nature of the modern New Orleans dining scene.
This year, this all shows up on reveillon menus of hearty dishes redrawn with a contemporary hand, and even a new expansion of the program, called Reveillon on the Rocks, that brings bars and cocktail lounges into the fold.
“Reveillon is another one of those things that separates us from the rest of the country,” said Greg Sonnier, the chef at Kingfish Kitchen & Cocktails, which serves a reveillon menu this year. “No one else does reveillon like we do it in New Orleans.”
Derived from the French word for “awakening” and rooted in French holiday custom, reveillon was originally a meal served in the home to revive hungry Catholic families who, following a since-rescinded church directive to fast on Christmas Eve, would return from midnight Mass famished. The custom all but died out as the 20th century unrolled and more American modes of Christmas took root in New Orleans. But in the 1990s, reveillon itself was revived — and transformed — by French Quarter Festivals Inc., the same group that produces its namesake music festival in April. Now reveillon takes place in restaurants as multi-course, prix fixe dinners served throughout December. This year, 45 restaurants are participating.
The old line French Creole restaurants are well represented by Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, the Court of Two Sisters, Galatoire’s and Tujague’s, and even the newly reopened Brennan’s Restaurant, which is slated to add dinner service to its schedule on Dec. 5. Contemporary restaurants, including Restaurant R’evolution, the Grill Room, all of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants and most of chef John Besh’s restaurants, are in the mix, too. Wintery cues for venison, duck and quail are in wide rotation across these menus, and some dishes work seasonal flavors in unique ways, like turkey and pumpkin masa tamales at the Pelican Club, or oyster tourtière, the Quebec-style savory pie, at Martinique Bistro.
Others dial into distinctly Louisiana holiday flavors, like daube glacé, the Creole beef spread on the menu at NOLA Restaurant, and some include a drink as a form of liquid lagniappe. Café Degas adds a glass of port, for instance, while Vacherie pours a poinsettia, the sparkling wine and cranberry cocktail, and Crescent City Brewhouse offers a four-beer sampler.
Shaking up the season
For Reveillon on the Rocks, restaurants and bars were asked to create or designate special holiday-themed drinks, and 22 are participating in this inaugural year. Drinks like a house-made Irish cream at the Three Muses, a wine, rum and porter punch called the Gallatin Cup at Cane & Table, and a rye, Chambord and grenadine concoction called the “battle crye” at Pat O’Brien’s are examples on tap around town.
Marci Schramm, executive director of French Quarter Festivals Inc., said this new twist was conceived to highlight the creativity that bartenders are bringing to their craft and give establishments a way to participate in reveillon even if a prix fixe dinner doesn’t fit their format.
Initially, the re-engineered reveillon was pitched as a promotion to entice more locals to patronize downtown restaurants with dining deals as tourist and convention bookings tailed off during the holidays. In this way, it resembled the restaurant week promotions that now rolled out in the late summer for the same purpose.
At Muriel’s Jackson Square, located at the traditional nexus of French Quarter Christmas celebrations, managing partner Rick Gratia said reveillon has made December one of his busiest months, with customers from around the region booking specific reveillon reservations year after year. At $48 for a four-course meal, Muriel’s offering remains in the middle of the reveillon price range.
But over the years, restaurants across town have joined reveillon, and some have turned them into decadent, holiday-themed chef’s tasting menus.
One of the most lavish examples this year is at Commander’s Palace, which serves a six-course reveillon for $100.
“I see reveillon as a chance to highlight classic Louisiana food, but to take it back a little farther back and at the same time add more pizzazz,” said executive chef Tory McPhail.
He starts by mining vintage cookbooks for ideas to reinterpret on his Reveillon menus, which this year yields, among other dishes, sous vide ox heart with foie gras and sweetbreads on brioche, truffle-stuffed squab and a bûche de Noël — the French Yule log cake — reconfigured with banana and rum syrup and sheep’s milk dulce de leche.
His research also inspired a new drink component for his menu with a coup du milieu (or “shot in the middle”), a short cocktail served as a digestif midway through the meal. It’s something like the drink equivalent of baseball’s seventh inning stretch.
SoBou and Café Adelaide, the two sister restaurants of Commander’s Palace, also have a coup du milieu on their Reveillon menus.
“It was traditional in a long past era,” said McPhail. “I like to think back to 100 years ago, when this restaurant was first getting started in the Garden District, people in this neighborhood at dinner parties would gulp these down in the middle of dinner to get ready for all the courses ahead.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.