Something is immediately convincing about Elizabeth's. Maybe it's the empty next-door lot perfumed with invisible jasmine, the trains that creep along the levee, or the way its lazy location, modest white siding and insignificant sign remind you of a rural roadhouse. Maybe it's the corner door, which stays open on warm days and channels sunlight into the dining room like a prism. Or maybe it's the vinyl tablecloths draped over the tables, each one fit for a grandmother's kitchen. Whatever it is, it definitely pre-dates the Western feng shui fascination.
As a business, Elizabeth's is a thriving, communal enterprise: no staff member, Chef-owner Heidi Trull included, is above fetching extra napkins or refilling cracked coffee mugs bedecked with "I Love You" and other catchy phrases. The darker-than-night coffee and chicory is some of the best around, and I thank the staff's bottomless cup reflex for enabling, and then fortifying, my caffeine addiction. If only the praline bacon could be mainlined as easily: crisp and chewy, and pebbled with sugared pecans crushed to the consistency of breadcrumbs, it epitomizes the popular (and correct) view that pork is candy.
A South Carolina native, Trull cooks like a Southerner who fears that her people will go hungry. Beef grillades in their dark, tangy gravy fell apart one Saturday in an enormous glass pie plate filled with white cheese grits. Meanwhile across the table shreds and various bits of house-smoked pork stewed in the juices of sweet red peppers, all under a rubble of cornbread. A mountain of French toast stuffed with cream cheese had no use for syrup, as it ranged between pound cake and pudding in its own moistness. And a downy "German" apple pancake served with sweet sour cream seemed to have risen and baked in its own skillet. Perhaps a German could finish it.
If you have a weakness for liver and onions, find out when Trull is serving her tender, ribeye-size version next (I had it on a Thursday). And don't miss the calas, a nearly extinct Creole tradition of deep-frying cinnamon-seasoned rice balls. They come choked with powdered sugar, but hard-core sugar junkies drown them in syrup, too. Incidentally, a calas appetizer prompted my first experience with the chef's notorious feistiness: two high-volume entrees and the calas bowl couldn't share our small table, so Trull snatched the last remaining rice ball and plopped it down among my grillades and grits. "Don't worry," she said. "I touched it with my fingers in the kitchen, too." She looks to be thirtysomething but has a grandmother's attitude.
While her static menu is diner-simple, Trull's creative curiosities simmer to the surface of daily specials such as Mrs. Hoi's chubby Vietnamese-style summer rolls filled with shrimp, rice noodles, mint and sponge-like egg; savory crawfish cheesecake; spinach-artichoke soup with unexpected lumps of warm cream cheese; and Hilma's Honduran Chicken, a spicy cross between chicken jambalaya and Spanish rice. If truth in menu were Elizabeth's strength, this last dish would have been named Hilma's Honduran Rice; particular eaters should ask for details about the specials. Also note that it's not my fault if you're disappointed by an unimaginative salad, and that the French fry po-boys made with fresh-cut fries were messier, saltier and better when served under the sweat and sun of Jazz Fest.
Trull's husband is the pastry chef at NOLA, and a sense for sweets clearly runs in the family. The daily dessert list fills a dry-erase board; cakes, pies and cookies "made with love" call out from their countertop display. Trull bakes tart white peaches and ginger into almost-crumbly cheesecake, she swirls fig puree into chocolate bundt cake, and she buries chocolate chips in chocolate bread pudding. Drunken Monkey ice cream packed with frozen banana, whole walnuts and chocolate chips illuminates the missing ingredient in Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey: bourbon. Though considering dessert after a two-course Saturday brunch (the best meal at Elizabeth's) seems ridiculous, I regret it every time I decline.
As I write, I struggle with a bittersweet issue of another sort: a niggling feeling of guilt toward the Bywater neighborhood for further exposing its precious, still partly hidden secret. In the end, however, I figure everyone deserves to know that there's nothing like pigging out at Elizabeth's.