There's more going on at this French Quarter caf than the beauty of its dining areas, but any conversation about the place has to start in the courtyard. People walking along Royal Street literally stop in their tracks when they pass the open gate leading to the lush garden of tropical blossoms, framed by weathered brick and stonework and set with antique furniture.
Caf Amelie is an idealized vision of cloistered French Quarter beauty, but it transcends postcard clich with local authenticity. Local merchants stop in for sandwiches at lunch or drinks after closing the shop for the day. Groups of friends book tables well in advance to watch sunsets paint the place in soft colors and especially vie for prime dinner seating when musicians like John Boutt perform mellow, intimate sets here on the weekends. If you want to change someone's mind about moving away from New Orleans, an evening table here could seal the deal.
At its best, the cooking combines freshness and simplicity for meals that may not knock you over with culinary daring but are still satisfying. Chef Jerry Mixon and restaurant manager Danny Akers are regulars at the Crescent City Farmers Market, and Mixon has plenty of family connections in the local seafood business. The waiters can usually tell you if the shrimp came from Delacroix or Hopedale on any given night. The menu changes frequently, and if you go to Caf Amelie enough, you might start getting tips about when to expect a cochon de lait on the menu.
The entrees are reasonably priced for fine dining, with a few dishes below $20, though some of the appetizers seem a few dollars too expensive. The Amelie oysters roasted on the half shell with an aromatic artichoke cream and spinach were delicious but induced sticker shock at $12 for an order of three. The sleeper hit among the appetizers is the seared shrimp cooked with a truly hot orange pepper sauce that would do a Thai kitchen proud. The steamed mussels also stand out, arrayed in a flower petal pattern in a liquid that is much more like a sauce than the conventional broth. It is still slurpable and because it is redolent with saffron, I did just that. The mozzarella fireballs -- gumball-sized wads of fresh cheese marinated in peppery oil -- aren't as exciting as their name.
The entre list is usually stocked with three or four local fish species. The large slab of tuna came vividly fresh and with the seared-to-raw color variation of a good tuna tataki. The salmon was seasoned in the same way as the tuna with a light crust of salt, pepper and herbs and draped with a creamy, pungent horseradish sauce.
There's not much variety in the side dishes. Almost every entre comes with string beans and either potatoes or grits. If it gets a little repetitive, at least they are all very good, especially the velvety smooth grits.
The beef for the bleu cheese-stuffed filet was excellent, though there wasn't enough cheese to offer a truly assertive flavor. The rack of lamb made the boldest statement, enhanced with pepper jelly sauce with bits of mango and potent Scotch bonnet peppers. Those ubiquitous green beans never tasted so good as when coated with this stuff.
Lunch usually has a few dinnertime appetizers, salads and a menu of great sandwiches. A classic BLT on airy sourdough has so much bacon that enough inevitably falls out on the way from the plate to the mouth to make another sandwich altogether. The muffuletta is exceptionally good, built on sturdy ciabatta rather than the traditional round Italian loaf. It arrives hot from the broiler with provolone melted onto the almost caramelized edges of the ham and piled with olive salad that is chunky, oily and has a slight citrus freshness. I couldn't come close to finishing one and I was not holding back.
Caf Amelie is a great dessert place combining the kitchen's best habits of freshness and simplicity. In particular, Mixon's rendition of bread pudding is unique and stands out as one of the most delicious examples of the dish in a town that is practically paved with them. It is surprisingly airy and light tasting, almost fluffy, and the flavor is much more tart than sweet. The soft texture is offset by the crunch of the slivered almonds and whole, pitted cherries, soaked in the brandy sauce, are like juicy bombs going off every few bites.
Caf Amelie's building and courtyard date back to the 1830s. One of the original residents later moved to Europe, married into the Grimaldi family and became the first American princess of Monaco. That explains the property's other name, the Princess of Monaco Courtyard, which is a venue for weddings and private parties. The space still hosts a lot of those parties and sometimes that means the restaurant is closed during its posted service hours. It's always a good idea to call a restaurant before showing up, but it's a really a good idea at Caf Amelie. If you have your mind set on a meal in this courtyard, no back up plan is really going to compensate.