As owner Lloyd English pours glasses of rose wine and twists thick rinds of lemon into Sazeracs, he and his friends -- some of whom linger over several after-dinner drinks -- might chat about that afternoon's Tulane football defeat, the possibility of full-fledged war or the veal Parmesan. Like so many neighborhood restaurants in New Orleans, Mandich, opened by John Mandich in 1922, is already legendary. Its followers speak of the pink building as if it were a museum; they pilgrimage to Mandich for oysters bordelaise the way art admirers plan trips to Italy around Michelangelo's David. Even so, when English and friends get to talking about the evening when the restaurant hosted rival Seminole Indian chiefs, and when they rave about an unfamiliar pork loin entree, you realize that every moment within the Ninth Ward institution is more history created.
Mandich is a great old supper club (though lunches are a tradition); as the "short wait" at the bar comes to a close, the mood is not unlike a sorority's common room at the end of pledge week. Your new friends welcome you into the Mandich fold with cheers like, "Get the trout!" "Have a good meal!" and "We know you will!" Eventually English leads you back into the dining rooms, where the curtains are closed to men across St. Claude Avenue servicing cars into the night, and to the police officer escorting diners to the grassy parking lot. Mandich isn't the kind of restaurant that integrates the immediate surroundings into its moment-by-moment affairs; instead the Mandich neighborhood restaurant experience is distilled into the wheaty glow of yellow-gold walls, wood paneling and mustard-colored tablecloths illuminated by low-hanging chandeliers.
Your bar friends are ultimately right, especially if you like your spaghetti sauce sweet, if you take your salt and garlic in equal proportions, and if you think it's reasonable to drink butter like water. The trout Mandich, a hallowed dish that may be talked about in New Orleans as often as the stock market comes up in New York, is pan-fried and awash in lemon butter. It's sometimes made with redfish instead, though considering the mounds of lump crabmeat on top, it's a misnomer anyway. Slices of fluffed potato (Boston Potatoes) are also fried and then swathed in garlic butter. Oysters bordelaise are battered and fried a dark craggy brown, then slathered with butter, bits of green onion and serious slivers of garlic. This sort of food is responsible for the simultaneous fame and infamy of our city's deep-fried legacy; thanks to Chef Joel English, Lloyd's wife, for keeping the vision alive.
To criticize Mandich for its prices, which often happens, is an expression of neighborhoodism. Its unglamorous Bywater location does nothing to lower the cost of endless crabmeat and butter. The service surely couldn't be sweeter, and double-ply to-go containers would be in order if the portions were any bigger. One waitress, concerned for our appetites, whisked away the remnants of fried eggplant sticks when she noted the initial signs of diner's fatigue. When hot, the eggplant inside had flowed like warm ganache. The sweet, caramelized skin of a well-done duck breast could be served as dessert cracklin'; it comes with sweet potato sauce reminiscent of apple butter and a rich, fried crabcake the size of Camellia Grill's hamburgers. Stuffed shrimp are engulfed in the same lumpy, herbaceous, yellowish crabmeat mixture. Just four of them -- two deep-fried and two doused in a thin but unfortunately cloying hollandaise -- crushed the endurance of my Cajun friend who's not usually one to let shrimp win.
During any given meal at Mandich you'll eat in the company of some diners celebrating milestones and others simply out for a bite. The food occasionally expresses a parallel dichotomy. Certain dishes are special occasions in themselves: a spicy red bean gravy made into soup with rice and sausage; dark, stock-rich shrimp etouffee brought to a point with pepper; a whipped cream dessert that's like Mosca's pineapple fluff spread between layers of moist yellow cake. Other dishes are just food: the oysters prepared Rockefeller and Bienville-style were almost inedibly musty one evening; the world's greatest etouffee couldn't hide a shrimp that's gone unfirm. The turtle soup was too overrun by allspice-like sweetness to be appreciated at my table, and I repeat that anyone afraid of cavities should steer clear from the red sauce.
After every meal, however, it's clear that Mandich tastes like no place else, which might be the highest priority in evaluating a neighborhood restaurant. That and its treatment of red beans, of course. Oh, and whether or not there's space for one more wannabe regular to pass a short wait at the bar.