The change of address didn't take the restaurant very far -- just next door, in fact. Rather, the most striking change is the addition of a "food bar" -- a small counter where a few patrons can dine with a view straight into the kitchen. At the former College Inn, a food bar would have offered seats to a pretty boring show in an archaic kitchen. At today's College Inn, it's a sign that a restaurant trading heavily on the appeal of New Orleans traditions is not limiting itself to them.
Ye Olde College Inn opened in 1933, the not-coincidental year Prohibition ended. It later had carhop service and was known in the 1950s and 1960s as a place where teenagers "parked" outside on dates. By the time I started going there a few years ago, the restaurant was stuck somewhere between icon and relic, and the liveliest part of the operation was the horseshoe-shaped bar where regulars parked themselves on barstools for beer and po-boys and sports on TV.
It was bought in 2003 by John Blancher -- proprietor of Mid-City Lanes Rock 'N' Bowl -- and is run by his 29-year-old son, Johnny. After Katrina, the Blanchers were left with an aged restaurant with severe flood damage and, next door, a sturdy and completely empty 1920s-era brick building they also owned. They chose to rebuild next door to the original restaurant and have done an amazing job with it.
There's no question the new College Inn is more attractive than the original, which still stands flood-marked and dark while the Blanchers figure out what to do with the building. Ringed with light bulbs around the top and fronted by big picture windows, the exterior of the new place glows at night. Inside, portions of a flood-damaged mural of Canal Street have been cut into large pieces and hung around the dining room, and R&B bops from the sound system.
The kitchen works with a menu that is much shorter and much different than before. Gone are dishes like shrimp Louie -- iceberg lettuce, boiled shrimp and eggs and olive salad -- or the Lone Eagle -- a turkey sandwich cut up and arranged on the plate to resemble an eagle. Though College Inn originals, these were hardly classics. The most substantial loss from the old menu, however, is the fried chicken. Maybe it will come back some day, but until then there is plenty enough fried food to keep one full of crackling batter.
Case in point is one of the most popular survivors from the old menu, the fried veal cutlet. Pounded very thin and puffed up with a great deal of crispy breading, the large cutlet hangs over either side of the plate and is bathed in brown gravy. Like the onion rings and the fried green tomatoes -- other very good holdovers from yore -- it demonstrates why people seated at the food bar will likely come away with a greater appreciation for the art of frying than any other technique they might witness there.
New additions to the menu tend to go upscale and find mixed results. The pork chop, here called the Carrollton Tchoup, has nice exterior texture and a delicious, tangy-sweet sauce made with honey, bourbon and mustard, but the generous cut is about as thick as a Victorian novel and just as dull in the middle, where all those good outside flavors haven't penetrated. The accompanying duck and andouille jambalaya is excellent and very spicy.
The redfish meuniere is too plain, despite the intense lemon component in the gravy-like sauce smothering it. A more satisfying choice is the broiled redfish served with a good, buttery crawfish etouffee ladled on the nicely seasoned filet. The fanciest item on the menu is the grilled mahi mahi, which would probably confound College Inn regulars of generations past with its vertical garnish of wavy tortilla strips stuck into a bed of mashed potatoes. Theatrics aside, the fish is tender and flakes nicely off the fork into a beurre blanc enriched with lobster broth.
Back in all its glory is the College Inn hamburger, a masterstroke thanks in large part to its bun. This sesame-seeded, softball-sized globe of goodness is made by Leidenheimer Baking Co. and has the same kind of cottony interior as the baker's po-boy loaves. The College Inn does it one better with a properly sized patty requiring no awkward mouth stretching for a respectable bite. More familiar Leidenheimer loaves are put through their paces as both normal fried seafood po-boys and a few offbeat selections, the best of which is made with bacon and havarti cheese over fried oysters. Though expensive (the basic fried shrimp is $10) these foot-long po-boys are well-made and very satisfying.
The food bar may speak to the ambitions the College Inn has for its food, but the real bar up front is a monument to the restaurant's past. It was built with the same horseshoe shape as the old one, using some lumber salvaged from the original restaurant and the Blanchers' own flood-damaged Mid-City homes. More important, it is peopled with the same characters, often carrying on conversations they may well have begun years ago when the College Inn's bar had a slightly different address.