Every few years a wave of nostalgia grabs ahold of the American pop-cultural heartstrings, and before you know it some previous era revives itself in our movies, our music, even our food. The 1980s had a love affair with the 1960s, and back in the mid/late 1990s, big bands, zoot suits and swing dancing took hold for a spell. It makes you wonder, in the lull between these nostalgia swings, which decade might pique our fascination next.
With the popularity of television shows like “Boardwalk Empire,” Baz Luhrman’s new film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” and the ever-growing craft cocktail scene, the 2010s are clearly in love with the Roaring Twenties. You see it in modern saloons dressed up in exposed brick and Edison bulbs, while bartenders in waistcoats and handlebar mustaches chip ice cubes by hand.
That suits Katy, Archie and Jane Casbarian, the proprietors of Arnaud’s restaurant, just fine. For the past several years, the Casbarians have hosted the occasional “Speakeasy Dinner” for their guests, a celebration of the restaurant’s history and cuisine from the Prohibition era.
Arnaud Cazenave opened the doors of his Grande Dame Creole restaurant in 1918, right on the heels of the Volstead Act outlawing the production, transportation and sale of “intoxicating beverages.” Prohibition, it seems, didn’t take with the Frenchman.
“Arnaud escorted or allowed his more valued guests to enter through the alleyway during Prohibition,” Katy Casbarian said. “Back then, there was a back bar in the kitchen, and he’d let people belly up to the bar and serve them there. But in the more public areas of the restaurant, he was pouring alcohol into coffee cups to be more discreet. We always thought it was a funny story, and I’m sure the same thing played out in other restaurants, but for us it’s fun to carry on that tradition, which we’ve continued with these dinners.”
In true Prohibition fashion, the Speakeasy Dinners at Arnaud’s begin with a cocktail served, naturally, in a coffee cup. At the most recent dinner, that concoction was the “Queen Elizabeth,” a refreshing mix of vermouth, Benedictine and lime juice popular back in the days of its illegality.
Said Katy Casbarian, “Even today, with the current cocktail craze, the drink menu at Arnaud’s French 75 really shows a lot of respect to that era, and even our new cocktails tend to be very similar in preparation to the ones that were served back during Prohibition.”
But the Prohibition era has significantly more to offer than excellent cocktails served in discreet vessels. The cuisine at the Speakeasy Dinners isn’t an approximation of what diners might have enjoyed at Arnaud’s in the 1920s, but an exacting recreation of menu items that once graced the restaurant’s tables.
“We have an archive of menus from the past,” Katy Casbarian said. “It’s a fun process to go through them every time we create a menu for one of these dinners, to look back at the history of the restaurant. It’s really unbelievable to think that this restaurant’s been around since 1918. And, obviously, some of the menu items from back then are still on the menu today, which is impressive in itself, but to be able to go back and do this series of dinners, and revive some of the items that were laid to rest a long time ago, is really wonderful.”
Along with our mugs of cocktails, the evening began with a trio of hors d’oeuvres, all of which, according to executive chef Tommy DiGiovanni, would have been on Arnaud’s menu during the ’20s. There were small bites of steak tartare on toast rounds, and, of course, the famous soufflé potatoes, small pillows of addictive, air-light crisps served with béarnaise sauce for dipping.
Plates of frogs’ legs, sautéed in a Rockefeller compound butter, also made the rounds.
Once everyone was seated, the five-course meal began in earnest with a crawfish and mirliton salad, on the Arnaud’s menu between 1928 and 1932. A seasonal dish, the crawfish tails — marinated with thinly julienned mirliton in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, celery, peppers and onions — were served in an elegant radicchio cup and garnished with pickled golden beets and cucumbers, a delightful starter.
Wine pairings, courtesy of Wines Unlimited, the wholesale arm of Martin’s Wine Cellar, complemented each course, beginning with a crisp muscadet.
Next came Trout Marguery, which, according to Chef DiGiovanni, “is a classic throwback, and about as French as you can possibly get.” The dish appeared on Arnaud’s original menu in 1918. The fish is poached in white wine, then sautéed with mushrooms, crabmeat and shrimp, then topped with rich hollandaise sauce. Following that arrived another classic, this time from all the way back to the 1870s: Filet Perigueux, a petit filet mignon topped with foie gras mousse flecked with black truffles, and finished with a rich truffle sauce made with madeira and demi glace. “This is truly classic, formal French cuisine,” the chef noted.
Dessert was a clear hit with the diners, many of whom dressed the part of the Gatsby era in long strings of pearls, feathered headbands, suits and straw boater hats. DiGiovanni’s “Mille-Feuille,” a traditional French pastry layered with cream, was another dip into history, like our steaks, from the late 19th century, and we concluded the meal with, Café Brûlot, a classic post-feast digestive fashioned from coffee, orange curaçao, orange zest, lemon, lime, sugar and cinnamon.
Whether or not the current fascination with the Prohibition era fades, the Casbarians have no plans to discontinue their Speakeasy Dinners.
“It’s kind of growing as a club, with the same people coming back time and again, which is something that we really wanted,” Katy Casbarian said. “And since Creole menus, in their history, have always been quite vast, we always have a lot to choose from. So it’s not difficult to have a different menu every time, which we love to do, and it’s always a lot of fun.”