The term Reveillon means "awakening" in French and was the name early New Orleans Catholic families gave to the elaborate meal they ate at home after Mass on Christmas Eve. Reveillon dinners grew increasingly scarce as American Christmas traditions took hold, and by the middle of the last century they were all but extinct.
But in the late 1980s, French Quarter Festivals Inc. organization invoked the Reveillon tradition for a new restaurant promotion, transforming it into an entirely modern production for the preferences of contemporary diners and the needs of restaurateurs. Now, participating restaurants offer multi-course meals at a set price through December and participating customers have what amounts to an array of bargain-priced holiday banquets at their disposal.
After a disaster-induced hiatus in the dread year of 2005, Reveillon season is back and now in full swing at 33 restaurants.
The appeal of Reveillon crosses all sorts of boundaries and distinctions in New Orleans fine dining. Consider, for instance, the two restaurants at the extremes of the age spectrum among those participating this year: Tujague's Restaurant, opened 150 years ago by French immigrants Guillaume and Marie Abadie Tujague near riverfront docks and the French Market; and 7 on Fulton, opened in March by local restaurateur Vicky Bayley in a hotel near the convention center and casino.
From the start, the food at 7 on Fulton has been adventurous and unpredictable, with a lot more going on with each dish than the terse menu descriptions suggest. If anything this happy situation has only been enhanced by the new chef, Michael Sichel, who joined the restaurant after the short tenure there of David English. Sichel didn't create the Reveillon menu, as he points out to diners, but serves it anyway since the campaign's promotional materials were already complete.
This menu has been reduced to three courses from the four originally advertised, however, while the price of $40 remains the same. So now the meal starts with a choice of lobster bisque that is smooth and rich without being overtly creamy, augmented by lobster tortellini fried like wontons; a grilled quail sent out nicely crisp and salty; or a green salad with balls of pecan-dusted goat cheese in the mustard vinaigrette.
Seared scallops with a good crust, a few pats of soft foie gras and a bed of wild mushrooms and pureed sunchoke -- the starchy tuber sometimes called a Jerusalem artichoke -- were pleasingly intricate, though my fork strayed repeatedly to my neighbor's more substantial Reveillon entre choice of duck breast. The duck was glazed with honey, which melded deliciously with the fat for slices that were very tender, sweet and meaty all at once.
Banana crepes with caramel or an apple tart round out a meal that whet my appetite for a closer look at the chef's normal menu, especially the horseradish-crusted short ribs that disappeared from the plate across from me before I could steal a bite.
Down the river at Tujague's, the menu barely changes at all for Reveillon season, but the restaurant itself is so imbued with tradition and the ambient patina of old New Orleans that it practically begs to be the setting for a holiday repast among friends, which is what modern Reveillon is all about.
Tujague's, in effect, serves a Reveillon menu all year round, thanks to its style of only serving a table d'hote menu, which offers choices only for the entre. The cost is $33 and it goes like this: an appetizer of very good, highly tart shrimp remoulade, a cup of soup (often gumbo), an appetizer-sized portion of the beef brisket for which the restaurant is deservedly famous, one choice of four entrees, whatever dessert is being served that night and a rocks glass of strong coffee. The only change here for Reveillon time is the additional entre choice of a lamb shank, braised and served with a sauce described as Creole stew. When it arrives, the portion is so large it seems as if it was brought for the whole table to share. Surely, it seems, the waiter will produce a carving knife and, like dad over the holiday table, cut off portions for everyone around him. Despite its brute proportions, the meat is tender after what must have been a protracted braising and that Creole stew features an appealing red gravy with a consistency somewhere between a thick tomato sauce and Monday red beans.
For some reason, the waiters hardly ever mention the best dish at Tujague's, even though it is almost always available upon request. That's the chicken bonne femme, or "chicken good woman," which is pan-fried chicken with potatoes sliced into the shape of potato chips but with the thickness and texture of French fries. All of it is covered over by a salad of minced garlic and parsley.
If you are going anywhere else after eating this dish, there will be no need to knock on the door of your next destination. The legacy of all that garlic upon your breath will announce your arrival before you have the chance. The only way to neutralize this effect among your dining companions is to ensure everyone shares in the dish, and sharing, after all, is the essence of the holiday spirit.
Go online to www.frenchquarterfestivals.com to see this season's list of participating Reveillon restaurants.