A cheerful dining corner spot on the once-flourishing, slowly regenerating stretch of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard formerly known as Dryades Street, it opened in September 2000 as a hospitality school and job training grounds for at-risk youth. It was, and is, a religious endeavor, sprung from the LSF Foundation (formed in memory of the Catholic priest Father Emile Lafranz) and run in partnership with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Office of the Social Apostolate of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Managing co-founder Craig Cuccia opened it on a shoestring with a miniscule staff in a beautiful but dilapidated five-story building. He donated everything because God touched his heart to do so.
Nearly four years later, a reasonable span of time for any restaurant to establish solid footing, Cafe Reconcile is in the highest league of New Orleans neighborhood restaurants open for breakfast and lunch. Thursday's special -- firm, flesh-toned shrimp suspended in a thick potage of garlic-infused, pepper-fired creamy white beans -- is a dish around which to plan your week. Tasting deeply of smoked sausage, chicken gumbo has both the peculiar viscosity of okra and the bright spirit of tomato. There's even a small specialty in salads, like the generous sprays of baby spinach weighed down with real bacon bits, hard-cooked egg and tomato -- classic conditions for a housemade dressing of honey and grainy mustard.
The hospitality school students help set the tone here -- greeting and seating diners, filling beverage orders, recommending the bananas Foster bread pudding, acting as cooks' helpers, grappling with self-doubt, smiling with newfound confidence -- but their trainers run the show. A regular service staff is required to maintain a manageable flow in one of the city's busiest lunchtime cafeterias (some days prove more manageable than others); likewise, the kitchen employs a few steady cooks who keep the food up to speed. Sous-chef Willie Johnson, hired from the neighborhood, helped open the restaurant.
The resulting chicken salad, made with white and dark meat pulled from whole roasted birds, makes a terrific cold sandwich. This month, strapping crawfish tails have sweetened the heavy cream for a recurring soup du jour. Ordinary roast beef po-boys do not contain the succulent meat of mid-morning daydreams, though a rigorous dousing of hot sauce helps their cause.
Other soups, salads and sandwiches fare admirably, but it's the menu's flip-side of Chef Specials that turns trial lunches into repeat visits. Executive chef Don Boyd is a warm-looking bear of a man who arrived at Cafe Reconcile well-seasoned two and a half years ago. Boyd now spends most lunches playing traffic cop between the dining room and the kitchen. His roasted chicken comes with crackly, herb-tattooed skin and coarse-crumb jalapeno cornbread. A lucent brown, gravy-like crawfish sauce dolls up already handsome, golden-fried catfish fillets. Aromatic nubs of garlic lodge in the (usually) moist pork roast, served everyday with naturally lumpy mashed potatoes and rosemary gravy. Boyd's signature purple shrimp remoulade is a red cabbage-stained nod to his alma mater, LSU.
Given a choice of side dishes, take the baked sweet potatoes, which are split down the middle and quickly candied with butter and brown sugar just before serving. Collard greens, and fresh okra stewed with tomato, are reliable Southern standbys.
Cafe Reconcile's not-for-profit status appears to be legit: Nothing exceeds $7.95; most items don't break $5.95.
The cafe's optimistic, essay-length mission statement also bears out during day-to-day operations, beginning with the aim to "bring together people of different economic, social and racial backgrounds for mutual growth and appreciation." Whether by networking, prayer, pure intentions or great food, this isolated Central City dining room attracts a clientele that's so diverse there's no local comparison.
On quiet mornings, when only the dark coffee and chicory exhibits a lack of calm, it feels more like a neighborhood center than the overactive restaurant it becomes at lunchtime: A woman in a business suit works alone at her laptop; a white priest meets with a black community leader; a mother nurses her cranky newborn; your correspondent is rendered incompetent by a delicious muddle of pain perdu smothered with poached eggs, tender ham and custard-thick, lemony hollandaise.
This kitchen already produced solid food three years ago, if in a more haywire manner, at a time when Craig Cuccia expressed his desire for Cafe Reconcile's future: "We don't want anyone to feel sorry for us. We want to be the real deal," he said. Not to worry; pity votes don't get you to the top of the food chain in this town.