The restaurant's incomparable oyster bar had such a lock on my attention that I visited Pascal's Manale a dozen times before I ever ate a bite of food there at a table. Instead, I would put away the caloric equivalent of whole meals standing at the oyster bar. The oysters are superb, ice cold and they come at you one at a time as the shucker keeps every one at the bar happy and plates orders by the dozen for the dining room. It's easy to end up with 18, 24, 30 or more empty shells clustered around you like a spent oyster reef before you realize you're too full for dinner.
That's how my first meal went at Pascal's Manale a few years ago and that's how it went the night the place reopened after Hurricane Katrina around this time last year. There had been 2 feet of floodwater in the dining room and looters went on a brainless rampage. But when the neon tube lighting outside buzzed back on again, regulars returned to a fundamentally unchanged restaurant.
Originally a grocery store, the building was converted in 1913 to Manale Restaurant by Frank Manale. When he died in 1937, the restaurant was taken over by Pascal Radosta, the grandfather of current owner Bob DeFelice. He simply tacked his first name onto the previous owner's last name to establish its new identity.
Pascal's Manale is the quiescence of old-school style, and it is the wrong place to look for contemporary Italian cuisine or anything very fancy. You will not find truffle oil or veal cheeks or anything cooked in duck fat. Instead, the kitchen specializes in dishes that are unmistakably Italian-American and also revolve around local seafood. The appeal is wide. A typical crowd in the dining room will include family outings, drug reps entertaining tables of pouty young doctors, guys who look like they just got off an oil rig shift and well-dressed conventioneers exploring "outside of the Quarter."
At every table, at least one person seems to order barbecue shrimp, the restaurant's lasting contribution to local cuisine that was invented here almost as a dare. The story goes that one night in 1954 Vincent Sutro, a horseman from the Fair Grounds Race Course, was jibing Radosta that he was tired of the restaurant's choices. Sutro was invited to whip up whatever he wanted and the result was a clutch of the biggest shrimp in the house cooked in a surfeit of butter and black pepper. Though it has nothing to do with barbecue, it was named after the rusty color of the butter and thus was born one head-scratcher of a culinary misnomer.
On the right night, it can be an absolutely divine meal. But it's not always the right night. The shrimp can sometimes be overcooked to a mealy texture, which is particularly disappointing when the shrimp in question are as gorgeous as the ones used here. In any case, you will certainly be sucking the delicious butter sauce off your fingers in a way that will feel improper but irresistible.
There are other ways to get at the goodness of barbecue shrimp. During lunch, the restaurant serves a po-boy made by hollowing out a length of unsliced French bread and pouring in innumerable peeled shrimp and that sauce. To take a bite is to know the joy of excess as teeth plow through one butter-greased shrimp after another.
Peeled shrimp in the house barbecue sauce is also a highlight of a frequent and very good special where they balance atop a breaded, fried fillet of drum. When a woman dining at an adjacent table overheard us ordering it one night, she applauded our decision, accurately predicted we'd love it and then hilariously but quite earnestly described it as "light."
It was not, but "less light" still is the veal Gambero -- paneed veal served soaking in barbecue shrimp sauce. This is one of the few meat dishes on the menu, which has been significantly scaled back since the storm because of problems staffing the kitchen. The strip steak here is good, but really most people come for seafood. The classic fruitti de mar is a fine showcase for it, served here with an intense, crunchy hash of garlic and chunky tomato sauce dished over scallops, shrimp, crab and oysters. Scallop and crabmeat pasta has a good deal of seafood and a very spicy cream sauce with lots of red pepper. Crabcakes are happily of the more-crab-than-cake variety and served over fettuccini Alfredo studded liberally with crabmeat. Another great seafood pasta dish is called Dante's oysters, which has perfectly fried, large oysters with piles of thinly sliced ham, mushrooms and green onions over al dente penne.
Apart from barbecue shrimp, the other iconic dish at Pascal's Manale is called the combination pan roast, which is like a seafood casserole so smoothly blended it could be confused with your Italian grandmother's seafood stuffing. I find it too smooth, with the crab and shrimp sliding past without much notice, but it does get better as you dredge out the whole roasted oysters on the bottom. A good way to decide if the texture will delight or bother you is to get a half order as an appetizer.
The best way to get oysters at Pascal's Manale, however, is at the oyster bar, where there are impeccable oysters, wonderful local salts shucking them and great old New Orleans ambience. Each of the shuckers here has a bartender's memory for faces, a casino dealer's hands and the ability to pick up the thread of a long-running joke left hanging from a patron's last visit, even if that was as long ago as the pre-Katrina oyster season.