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Time and Place 

Inside and out, a Riverbend cottage restaurant casts springtime spells

He was a little far away to be certain, but I'm pretty sure the train engineer and I gave each other the same look from across the street one evening. It was something like a hats-off-to-you sentiment that acknowledged we were both sitting in some pretty impressive seats. His was in an idling locomotive about to pull a half-mile worth of boxcars out of New Orleans. Mine was at a patio table outside Mat & Naddie's Restaurant, with a plate of bubbling grilled oysters and a rum cocktail, a view of the purple sunset dissipating over the green levee and a guitar-violin combo playing jazz numbers in the corner.

Mat & Naddie's has plenty to recommend. There's the restored cottage ambience of the dining room and the funky-rustic patio that looks like something the Swiss Family Robinson might have built had they been stranded along with a New Orleans folk artist. There's a serious kitchen and an intriguing wine list. On the third Monday of each month, there's live music outside during dinner. Most of all, though, there is a geo-psychic appeal to its unique perch, just past the Riverbend but not quite at the parish line, wedged into a triangle of streets pointing directly at the Mississippi River, like a rural retreat inside the city.

Bicyclists zoom by on the levee top. It's common to see people riding horses along its gentle slope in the early evenings. And the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad puts on its daily floorshow of rolling stock, sending slight tremors through the building that are enough to put ripples in your Sauvignon Blanc. The sense of place here is inescapable.

While the location spared Mat & Naddie's any post-Katrina flooding, storm winds sent a giant elm tree through its roof. Chef and owner Steve Schwarz reopened last spring, at first serving only a lunch buffet that continues today. It costs $10 and feels more like the spread at a wealthy friend's house party than a standard restaurant buffet. Cooks continuously march out of the kitchen with tureens and platters and small bowls of salads and pastas, grilled vegetables, meats, fish, cheese, quiches and soups. The Creole shrimp salad -- tender, tangy and perfect -- is a mainstay.

Dinner these days is served just three nights a week -- Friday, Saturday and Monday. The dinner menu revels in meat and seafood but has more than just token choices for vegetarians. While carnivores ravish a terrine of duck liver and pork wrapped in bacon, others can have a portobello mushroom cheesecake that looks like patŽ, is smooth as butter and has a gentle kick from a red pepper sauce.

The grilled oysters are flawless, cooked with some grated Italian cheese, garlic and olive oil just long enough to puff up the oysters and inflate their marine flavor. Belgian-style potato wedges with smoked paprika sound exotic but when they arrive stacked like Lincoln logs with a well of green aioli they prove too plain to suffice as an appetizer. The shrimp and crawfish croquettes are also a letdown, tasting much more like batter than seafood.

Some of the salads make more decadent appetizers than the actual appetizers. For instance, it's easy to forget you ordered a salad at all when the grilled, prosciutto-wrapped scallops show up, but there really are baby greens, potatoes and a vinaigrette underneath these salty pork-sheathed beauties. The fried oyster salad has wonderfully crispy, almost greaseless oysters, a tart remoulade and bacon with an alibi of arugula.

The most succulent entrŽe is a dish with very tender scallops sliced open and sandwiching bits of truffle. Also great is the filet mignon, enhanced with herb-flecked butter melted over the top and a sauce of blue cheese and bacon.

The barbecue shrimp is only like the traditional New Orleans recipe of the same name in that it too has no barbecue sauce. This is a dish that would be at home in the kitchen of a creative, pan-Asian restaurant, with the large, shelled shrimp served with a black bean sauce, sticky jasmine rice, braised bok choy and a wet slaw of green and red peppers. It is a delicious and unique dish, but with only three shrimp, it may disappoint local diners accustomed to twice that headcount in a dinner entrŽe.

One of two purely vegetarian entrees is an unusual roulade, made with an eggy mixture somewhere between omelet and soufflŽ that is baked firm but still moist. It has a lip-smacking tang of strong gruyere cheese and is wrapped around a hash of wild mushrooms and a puree of porcini. All dark and earthy colors, it is light, complex and belly-warming all at once.

The best dessert I've tried is a rendition of white chocolate bread pudding that is "panneed" and then fried in butter to give a thick, crisp shell. Dusted with powdered sugar, it was as rich as a cruller dunked in a rum caramel sauce. A close second is a hybrid of pecan pie and sweet potato pie, with the warm, spiced mash of sweet potato sitting in as the filling under the syrupy pecans.

Mat & Naddie's wine list is one of the funniest yet most useful documents you're likely to read in a restaurant. It goes on for pages and for each selection employees have provided the type of written descriptions you usually only get from especially honest and witty wine merchants. The Chardonnay from Oregon's A to Z Winery is praised for its lack of oak but teased about having an "ugly label." Another, from California's Toasted Head, is said to conjure memories of the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Beyond the jokes, the detailed and accurate tasting notes make the list eminently accessible, even if your formal wine education comes mostly from repeat viewings of Sideways.

click to enlarge Diners enjoy the patio overlooking the river levee at Mat & - Naddie's. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Diners enjoy the patio overlooking the river levee at Mat & Naddie's.
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