Sometimes the stitching that sews up New Orleans stories follows unconventional patterns. Mt. Carmel Academy, that venerable Catholic girls school in Lakeview, played a hand in the return of oysters Ralphie, a beautiful, bubbling concoction of oysters baked in their shells under tangy Italian cheese, garlic, pepper and a dash of beer.
Oysters Ralphie was a favorite at Barataria, a one-time Lakeview restaurant closed since Hurricane Katrina. But now Ralphie's back at Cafe Ralphie, a new breakfast/lunch joint well-hidden in the corner of a Metairie strip mall, along with unexpected finds such as tomato salad loaded with jumbo lump crabmeat and sauteed redfish with crawfish amandine.
Robust, deftly done and unmistakably Louisianan, such dishes are the work of Ralph "Ralphie" Pausina, a chef from a Croatian family that's had a long history in local oyster beds. He and wife Glenda Rhode-Pausina once ran Barataria, and they sold it in 2004 to new operators, who completed an ambitious renovation just in time for the floods after Katrina to destroy the place. By that time Pausina was a chef with a large corporate restaurant group, though by 2008 he was weekend-commuting from Houston back to New Orleans, where Glenda was living so their daughter could attend Mt. Carmel, continuing a tradition for their family. Stretched between two cities, the allure of home won out. He moved back and earlier this year the Pausinas opened Cafe Ralphie in the former Caffe Angelina location.
With its picture windows, drop ceiling and mix of family bric-a-brac with fleur de lis totems, the restaurant looks like the kind of place where you'd drop by for wraps and iced coffee. You can get a croissant sandwich here, and the breakfast menu does the basics with a few Louisiana tweaks, like the crawfish and Brie omelet. But what really makes this place special are old standbys from the Barataria days and newer dishes that reach far beyond standard lunch fare.
For instance, add crabmeat to the oysters Ralphie recipe and you have what they call oysters Bay Ronquille. One special I tried fused the same creamy, garlicky crabmeat sauce to a spicy cut of blackened catfish. Daube makes a Wednesday appearance on this always-changing menu, and my favorite dish thus far has been the oyster boat pasta, with probably a dozen oysters cooked with andouille in a chunky, trinity-laden red sauce over a heaping bowl of spaghetti.
Cafe Ralphie is busiest for Sunday brunch, when the normal morning menu gives way to grits and grillades, eggs Benedict, seafood pastas and lots of chat between tables. The restaurant also hosts a "supper club" one Friday each month with a prix fixe menu, candlelight and BYOB in effect.
Service is usually handled single-handedly by Glenda, whose unvarnished enthusiasm for whatever you order might seem like a sales pitch if her praise wasn't so convincing. The Pausinas just seem really happy to be serving their food again, and after sopping up a few oysters Ralphie I'm happy they're back too.