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Shack Chef 

A River Road tavern has beer, burgers and surprising specials

If the Rivershack Tavern were any closer to the Mississippi River, it would have to be regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers. But people don't come here for the view, which is obscured anyway by the great green hump of levee just across River Road. They come for burgers and chicken wings, for bands on weekends, for a roadhouse ambience plastered with memorabilia, a proudly displayed "tacky ashtray" collection and lots of inside jokes.

But during weekday lunch hours these days, people also come for some exceptional, deftly prepared kitchen specials. There are usually two specials each weekday that read something like this: seared tuna with mango salsa, mixed greens and a green onion vinaigrette in a fried tortilla shell. Or Thai summer salad with red curry vinaigrette. Or osso buco, or roasted duck or lamb shank. While the specials are way out of line with expectations of the honky tonk atmosphere, the prices are usually right around $10.

The responsible party is Mike Baskind, a Chicago native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who made New Orleans his home 20 years ago. In the 1990s, he worked as the pastry chef at the Windsor Court and followed the hotel's executive chef, Rene Bajeux, when he left to open Rene Bistrot.

But four years ago, Baskind said goodbye to all that and took a cooking job pretty far off the culinary career path. He went down River Road to the Rivershack Tavern. Now he works five days a week, pulling the lunch shift only, with such enviable restaurant business perks as holidays and weekends off. The tavern owner gave him free reign over the daily specials and Baskind has run with it, coming up with different dishes one day to the next.

He has developed quite a few fans, and by noon on some days the supply of specials begins to run out. I personally snatched up the last chili relleno one day. This Southwestern rendition of the stuffed pepper was packed with oxtail meat as tender as barbecue and a molten mix of cheddar, Swiss and pepperjack cheeses, all sealed within a casing of crisp, fried batter with a roasted red ancho chili sauce. It was a deceptively simple dish with many different flavors combining for an exciting meal.

Another day featured a turtle soup so thick with meat and drunk with sherry that each spoonful was like a gamy venison chili. Then there was the mountain of food doing business as "Southern-fried whole Cornish hen" perched atop a mountain of mustard greens with at least a link of sausage chopped into it. Tender meat awaited under the brown, well-done exterior of the skin and the greens only got better as the bird's juices were released into the salty potlikker.

The selection is unpredictable, so there's no telling when the best dish I've sampled here will surface again. It was a seared redfish fillet balanced on top of a risotto cake. The redfish was cooked so well, so fork-tender within and crisp at the edges, I never wanted to have redfish fried again, while the risotto cake was both moist and earthy with chopped mushrooms and fried as crusty as a crab cake. What really set the dish off was a healthy dose of red wine butter sauce, tart with vinegar and herbaceous with ribbons of fresh basil.

One of the more elaborate mid-week specials was an upscale combo platter called the "Louisiana mixed grill," which promised quail, fried frog legs and seared fish, with a choice of mahi mahi, grouper or red snapper. The kitchen was swapping in substitutions by the time I arrived (12:15 p.m.) but it was hard to feel disappointed with the replacements. Instead of quail there was a small steak with a thick hunter sauce of mushrooms and roast beef debris. The snapper I picked had a zippy ginger and carrot coulis over its cracker-crisp seared skin. Standing in for the frog legs were a baker's dozen of oysters, and they were superb. Ladled with an emulsion of garlic, butter and parsley, they were like the second coming of oysters bordelaise, the specialty of Restaurant Mandich, a Bywater landmark done in by Hurricane Katrina. This was all $10.50.

The regular menu, served throughout the day and into the night, has good burgers, decent deli-style sandwiches and salads of the more-meat-than-vegetable variety. The French bread pizza with alligator sausage and jalapenos is offbeat and the $10 rib-eye special with sides is a good bargain. But where this menu particularly excels is in Buffalo country, especially the Buffalo oysters and the Buffalo shrimp. The oysters have a nutty, crunchy crust and the shrimp have a snappy, fresh texture under their crisp, golden sheaths. Both are coated in a wet, thin sauce that tastes like Crystal hot sauce with butter and comes across a little bit spicy and a whole lot tangy.

Some homier fare still makes appearances on the specials board. Monday's perennial offering is red beans and rice, and Baskind does this by the book. A special of meatloaf with mashed potatoes was as hearty and straightforward as it sounds, but then again the gravy was closer to a demi glace.

There isn't quite a wine list here, but the selection is much better than average for establishments where the crack of billiard balls is audible between jukebox numbers. You can usually get a glass of Fat Bastard, for instance, or Ravenswood, though the 50-cent glass of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill, the vintage of choice in dorm rooms and sorority houses everywhere, is only listed as a joke.

No matter how goofy the dŽcor may get, Raskind's cooking is serious business.

click to enlarge Chef Michael Baskind's intriguing lunch specials have kept Rivershack Tavern busy during the daytime. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef Michael Baskind's intriguing lunch specials have kept Rivershack Tavern busy during the daytime.

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