The onion soup is a traditional rendition, the top sealed practically lid-tight by a cap of bubbly cheese, the broth thick with onions. But the menu might also have a special soup like mirliton and crab bisque, a luscious concoction with big crab claws and a spicy cinnamon sweetness behind a veil of cream. The onion soup might be a winter warmer, but this bisque speaks to autumn in the subtropics.
The lamb satay was like some kind of Middle Eastern barbecue treat by way of Indochina, served with a sharp, pungent peanut sauce like no other. Another night, a rabbit salad included a cigar-thick tenderloin breaded and fried, though this one exhibited the kitchen's habit of overwhelming the greens with dressing.
One favorite special was a ruby red trout cooked skin-on, sauced with a delicious smoked-tomato buerre blanc and accompanied by a rustic crepe stuffed with stretchy gruyere cheese and caramelized onions. Another true plate-licking success was a filet done up like a dinnertime version of grillades and grits. The steak was seared perfectly and served with some wondrous grits suffused with roasted garlic and earthy rosemary, enriched further by the welcome intrusion of the steak's juices and marchands de vin sauce.
The specials are unpredictable, which can be a delight for regulars who have learned to trust the kitchen. When skate turned up one night, I was reluctant to try it after a few run-ins with stringy, bland examples of this fickle ray at other restaurants. But at Café Degas it was made as a stew and the result was delicious redemption. The long, thin cut of skate had edges as crisp as chips and the whole thing was scored like an accordion, opening the flesh up to absorb a broth flavored with black pepper, tomato, greens and wild mushrooms. It was one of those great dishes that seemed to offer different combinations of flavor and texture as it went along, each bite revealing something new.
Another uncommon beauty was a special of meaty, mild-tasting tilefish. It was prepared simply with a thin macadamia nut and Creole mustard crust and garnished with balsamic vinegar and tomato salsa, like a good bruschetta topping.
There can be some dull dishes here, though they usually come with plenty of warning. A recent chicken breast special was nicely cooked but utterly lacking in flavor. Another night's Chinois, or Chinese, salad was essentially shredded cabbage laced with soy and ginger, but at least it didn't purport to be anything more.
Though often outshined by the specials, the permanent menu holds plenty of treasures. Some days it seems like half the people in the house are eating the crab salad, and it's no wonder. The salad is a study in the beauty of local lump crabmeat lightly touched with complementary flavors (delicately fried shallots, juicy grapefruit segments, black pepper) but otherwise left to its own fresh glory. At lunch and brunch, inexpensive and seemingly simple dishes show the restaurant's versatility. The omelet, for instance, does not scream for attention, yet it is an immensely satisfying meal with plump, nicely cooked shrimp, bits of bacon and buttery wild mushrooms, all encased in layers of egg rather than just an omelet wrapping.
Beyond the menu, a big part of the restaurant's appeal is its singular setting. Café Degas seems to come out of the heart of its Faubourg St. John neighborhood, a New Orleans crossroads where divergent grids of city streets intersect in a grand jumble of triangular lots and quiet, cloistered bends with lush gardens, colorful houses and magnificent oaks. The restaurant sits in a small cluster of local businesses that produce the friendly type of small-town bustle that might seem scripted if it weren't so genuinely New Orleans. With the exception of its tiny bar and an even smaller kitchen, the restaurant is essentially a covered patio, open to the landscaped sidewalk and the attention of passersby. The breeze seems to blow neighbors into the bar for a quick nip or a cheese board.
The innate goodness and distinct character of certain wines is often attributed to their terroir, or that sense of place they carries along in their potable DNA. Something like that can apply to restaurants, too, and Café Degas is a local example of what that feels like.