Skepticism lingered as I motored across Saulet Plaza's empty lot, but it did wane. This curious location, a recycled Asian restaurant amid storefronts protected by tinted windows, actually bolstered the possibility that this was, as I had hoped, related to the extraordinary Orleans Parish catfish house, Barrow's Shady Inn. That one, too, can be a bear to find, so illogically situated -- just out of reach as Earhart Boulevard soars into a freeway -- it could be considered bad business. Given the quality fried catfish doled out at that Barrow's, however, it could also be called knowing your worth.
The Harvey space didn't feel familiar inside, even apart from the natural light and the bland fixtures. Everything was washed and Windexed, nothing like the cozy, dark, musty basement smell of Barrow's Shady Inn. Rather than back-to-back Al Green from the jukebox, a sound system murmured the sort of nerve-soothing easy jazz that can actually work your nerves if you don't have an ear for the style. A watercolor of Brennan's Restaurant only compounded the peculiarities.
My heart quickened, though, to see other diners drinking shock-yellow lemonade from the familiar oversize snifter glasses, and when I ordered a "half & half" the waitress knew just what I meant. A blend of sweet tea and puckery lemonade, the half & half is as bewildering as it is good; a perfectly refreshing beverage, it somehow leaves you aching with thirst.
The single greatest thrill at Barrow's Shady Inn, and pretty much the only other item on the verbal menu there, is the cayenne-pricked catfish, pan-fried to a turn, golden the color of dried corn and so hot you have to eat the buttered toast first. The menu in Harvey is a buffet in comparison, offering slab ribs, gumbo, crawfish pasta and cheesecake. You can accept change without giving into it -- I ordered the catfish.
Snarled at the extremities as if caught by the scorching oil mid-swim, the flaxen fillets were too hot to eat. I took a piece of toast instead and, with my other hand, massaged some of the catfish between my forefinger and thumb. Only the slightest glint of oil rubbed off, along with a dusting of toasty corn flour molecules that tasted like popcorn on the tongue. Then, a bite, followed by the clean, white taste of fresh catfish. This was Barrow's alright.
Sadly, nothing has been quite right since: I've returned to the new Barrow's twice, and the fried catfish wasn't up to its legacy either time. Once during dinner the cornmeal batter exhibited the limp, unyielding, plastic-like texture of a softshell crab past its prime, as if it had been fried much earlier and reheated to order. A few days later, at lunch, the batter had been revived to a sprite, spicy crunch, but the fish itself looked and tasted muddy-gray.
Did it ease my disenchantment that the chopped yellow potato salad shot through with pickle relish was just as it always has been, that the white buttered toast was still as salty and addicting as a potato chip, and that the servers out-sweetened the tea? Maybe a little.
And there are other pluses to note. Catfish platters still come in three enormous sizes -- regular ($14), medium ($15) and large ($16) -- and servers still smile and offer an extra salad when two diners ask to split the smallest one. Alcohol is not an option at either place, which lends the Barrow's catfish experience a lemonade-like wholesomeness you learn to love.
I even surprised myself by not minding the extended menu here, even though so much of the original Barrow's charm results from the absence of choice; you can't blame a new generation of owners for putting its own mark on a timeworn business, as long as the changes are respectable. The kitchen grills a fine rib-eye steak, and the crawfish and corn bisque thrives on the essence of its two main ingredients. There's a convincing smoke on the barbecue ribs, the dark baked beans have a pleasant, cherry sno-ball sweetness, and the blackened shrimp pasta special was the best-executed entree on the table one evening -- rich in concept and in butter. All of this is well and good if you didn't come for the catfish, which, two times out of three, wasn't as delicious as its legacy.