It’s good luck for late sleepers that brunch has come to the bayou.
Margaret Girouard wasn’t interested in pickles and ice cream when she was pregnant. “Give me boudin,” she said. Her husband, Justin, was running the kitchen at Stanley, star chef Scott Boswell’s restaurant on Jackson Square in New Orleans, with a breakfast-driven menu. Justin dreamed up a crazy Cajun take on Eggs Benedict, substituting a grilled boudin patty for the Canadian bacon, and exchanging the classic hollandaise topping for a ladle full of chicken and sausage gumbo.
“It was crazy good,” says Margaret, “but he’d only make it for me on the sly; he was trying to keep the idea a secret.”
One year later, the Girouards opened The French Press in their home town of Lafayette, and the dish, dubbed Cajun Benedict, is the star of their brunch menu.
Here in Acadiana, we have for two centuries been a collection of small towns, small farms and sugar plantations. An agrarian economy necessitates getting up early. Breakfast, be it coffee and a nose of French bread, or eggs, sausage, grits and biscuits, is an early morning affair. Even as the Cajun economy shifted to oil and gas, we’ve kept to our country foodways: breakfast in the morning, dinner at noon, and supper in the evening. But things are changing on the bayou.
|Cajun Benedict, The French Press|
The Cajun food driven breakfast menu really got its start at Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge in 1992. Dickie Breaux, his former wife Cynthia Schneider, and Dickie’s son Brett Breaux put together a menu that reached deep into the black iron pots of country cooks. They started out with a conventional breakfast, but once Zydeco Breakfast was born, so was a morning eggstravangaza that tucked boudin patties under and sauced crawfish etouffée over the poached eggs. Beignets, by way of Café du Monde in New Orleans, oreilles de cochon, right out of Cajun fry pots, tasso omelets and andouille-laced grits rounded out a menu that has drawn an international crowd to the little café and catapulted Café des Amis into the pages of The New York Times, Gourmet, Saveur and Bon Appetite magazines.
The only complaint about breakfast at Café des Amis is that it stops at 10:30 a.m., and the menu switches over to lunch. Restaurateur Ema Haq saw the need to extend eggs and bacon hours. His restaurant, Bailey’s, has been offering brunch on Sundays for 17 years. Chef Pat Breaux fills a buffet with smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagels, traditional Eggs Benedict, Eggs Bailey’s (which pours crawfish etouffée over the Benedict stack), crawfish cakes, carved prime rib and leg of lamb, an omelet station and for dessert the much-adored bread pudding.
|Al fresco brunch at The French Press|
Still, brunch took a while to catch on. It wasn’t until six years later that Blue Dog Café owner Steve Santillo turned his popular Cajun restaurant into a Sunday morning scene, with the biggest brunch buffet in town and a live jazz band. Typically, the parking lot begins to fill and a line forms even before the doors open at 10:30 a.m. Find your way to dine on the back patio, where George Rodrigue’s big Blue Dog sculpture keeps watch over the shady courtyard.
Blue Dog stirs up the definitive corn and crab bisque in town. Limpid, silky, with a rich corn introduction to the tongue and a nice slow cayenne burn at the back of the palate, it’s the kind of subtle soup that will have you going back for thirds if you don’t watch yourself. The buffet line reads like plate lunch paradise, with grillades and grits, dirty dog rice, limas and tasso, smothered cabbage and a house fave, crawfish enchiladas. Blue Dog also offers straight up Americana plates: carved roast beef, omelets made to order and Belgian waffles. Save room for the homemade cheesecake. Miss Irene, the pastry chef, has perfected her recipe over 11 years. She’s been baking cheesecake since the day Blue Dog opened its doors.
Right down the road, Santillo’s new restaurant, Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro, recently added a half dozen brunch items to the Sunday lunch menu. Seafood Benedict Mornay tops poached eggs with a prosciutto and a creamy crab and shrimp cheese sauce. The intriguing pain perdu begins with soaked and sautéed ciabatta, and is topped with a wholly original praliné of apples and andouille. End brunch (or begin, if you like your dessert first) with a bourbon milk punch, the quintessential breakfast quaff.
|Beignets, Village Café|
Chef Jude Tauzin at Village Café started serving Sunday brunch in December. Sitting outside on the Town Square at River Ranch is one of the most satisfying ways to start your sabbath. Tauzin is acclaimed for his culinary finesse, and brunch is treated as carefully as the rest of his menu. He serves two breakfast classics, Eggs Benedict and Sardou, and treats them with respect for the great dishes they are, while adding a twist of his own. The Benedict gets the boudin patty treatment, definitely an improvement over Canadian bacon. Sardou has a killer combination: cream spinach, fresh artichoke hearts, poached eggs, hollandaise. Tauzin doesn’t mess with that perfection, but he does guild the lily a bit by adding a fried oyster to the stack, which contributes the necessary crunch to make this a stellar dish. However, the white giant of the three poached egg dishes is Tauzin’s steak and eggs, medallions of medium-rare beef tenderloin, blackened tomatoes, eggs, and two sauces, a truffle-wild mushroom marchand de vin of great depth, twinned with the lemony hollandaise. It’s over the top, and worth every calorie.
|Seafood Benedict Mornay, Jolie's Louisiana Bistro|
Prejean’s has been serving great breakfasts for more than a decade. Outspoken former Gov. Mike Foster’s Waterloo was the Prejean Napoleon, a short stack of a polenta cake, crab cake and poached egg, blanketed with hollandaise and garnished with shrimp and tasso. General manager Brett Breaux took on refreshing the menu about six months ago. Breaux, who was instrumental in developing Café des Amis’ menu, brought boudin patties into Prejean’s Breaux Bridge Benedict. His take is piled on a grilled buttered biscuit, with boudin, he will tell you proudly, from Don’s Speciality Meats, poached eggs, and a really excellent crawfish étouffée. The dish is very rich, the peppery boudin setting off the mellow eggs and étouffée with a nice burn. While both egg dishes are excellent, the pain perdu really shines at Prejean’s, made the way your grandmother does, with custard soaked French bread, grilled to a gentle crispness and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Warm cane syrup comes on the side. Prejean’s offers breakfast seven days a week, but even on the weekends, when late sleepers are looking for omelets at noon, the breakfast shuts down at 10:30.
That abrupt cutoff coaxed us back to downtown, where the breakfast scene has been monopolized by Dwyer’s early morning biscuits for decades. The new kid on the block, the French Press has changed the downtown culinary vocabulary.
|Pain perdu with syrup, Prejean's|
“Brunch is my favorite meal of the day,” says Justin Girouard. “It’s always easier to cook what you can appreciate eating. If I want to eat what’s going out the door, that’s instant gratification for me as the cook.” Breakfast and lunch are really one menu at French Press, where sandwiches containing bacon, eggs and boudin vie with fried oyster poboys and a healthy bowl of house-made granola topped with yogurt and fresh fruit. But the real game changer is the hours. French Press serves brunch five days a week, from 7 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. weekends through closing time at 2 p.m. The outdoor tables, facing Parc Sans Souci, draw couples with strollers and dogs. Bicyclists, drawn to the downtown scene as well as the hipster bike shop two doors down, Recycled Cycles, chain up to the No Parking signs when they stop for coffee. And afternoon segues into evening, with a glass of wine chez Philippe’s, before the French Press opens its doors for weekend dinners.
Brunch is urban, it’s cool, it’s praline bacon, and it’s here, on the bayou.
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