Friday, October 26, 2018

My Visit to Irene’s New Location - New Orleans French Quarter

Bar at Irene's - 529 Bienville - New Orleans

"...The moment I saw the “new” Irene’s brick walkway, the instant I stepped inside and saw the wooden wine barrels, I knew it was dumb to worry... (Virginia Billeaud Anderson - writes about Irene's move to its new location at 529 Bienville in New Orleans. Includes fun history of southern Sicily.)

My Visit to Irene’s New Location - New Orleans French Quarter

Donnie and I are having a drink at Chart Room, a semi-divey joint on the corner of Chartres and Bienville streets in “da Quarter.” I like Chart Room because it has a neighborhood-bar feel to it. Some of the regulars have been going there for forty years, those who managed not to die or become whiskey brained. I’ve been going there since 1974.

While knocking back my Manhattan, I’m fretting over the relocated Irene’s. Earlier in the year Irene’s Cuisine moved from St. Philip Street in the “lower Quarter” to Bienville Street, seven blocks away. We are about to eat at Irene’s for the first time since the move, and I’m worried the things that had me all giddy about the old Irene’s will have changed. I don’t want to lose the cozy spaces, with dark wood wains coating, and decorative ceramic platters, and wooden wine barrels. And please, don’t let them jack with the mussels. Irene’s steamed mussels in white wine and marinara taste like mussels I ate on the southern coast of Sicily. 

The moment I saw the “new” Irene’s brick walkway, the instant I stepped inside and saw the wooden wine barrels, I knew it was dumb to worry. While waiting for friends in the bar, I gawked at the elegant woodwork. The shelves that hold hooch and wine in the area where the bartenders pour are decorated with lovely columnar details. When Irene announced the move, to be celebrated with a Second Line parade, some regular customers got bent out of shape, anticipating their loss of a homey atmosphere, which Irene had designed to evoke family meals in Sicily. While the new place is swankier, for the most part I think Irene managed to retain the ambience of the original.

When she was a child, Irene DiPietro watched her grandmother bake fresh bread and prepare food for large family gatherings in Noto, on the southeast coast of Sicily, where Irene was born. The family’s food came from animals they raised, and from their herb garden, olive trees and citrus orchard. Young Irene made trips to the wine cellar to fetch bottles of homemade vino. Her family immigrated in the fifties, she worked in family restaurants, then established the original Irene’s Cuisine in 1993. After completing formal culinary training, with cooking gigs in Italy and New Orleans, Commander's Palace included, Irene’s son Nicholas Scalco entered the business as Chef at Irene’s.

Irene's facade - 529 Bienville

We studied Irene’s wine menu while gobbling down complimentary tomato bruschetta. The wine selection is extensive, with emphases on Italian wines. This practice, Irene said in an interview, links to memories of the family’s wine cellar in Sicily. Our gang finished-off several bottles of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

Southern Sicily where Irene was born, has killer Greek archaeological sites. Syracuse for instance, perched on Sicily’s southeast coast, a short distance north of Irene’s birth city of Noto. Syracuse was colonized by the Corinthians about 733 BC, and if the ancient historian Strabo can be believed, the Oracle at Delphi encouraged the Corinthians to snatch it. We saw an ancient theater there associated with Aeschylus. Follow the coast west from Noto to Agrigento, described by the Greek poet Pindar as “the fairest city inhabited by mortals.” Among the many temple ruins in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, are the immense Temple of Zeus, and the Temple of Concord, called architecturally perfect, the purest of the Doric style. From Agrigento, travel west to Selinunte, more temples, and from Selinunte, turn north and head away from the coast for about 25 miles to Segesta. The temple at Segesta is architecturally spare, with unfluted columns, but is one of my favorites because of the breathtaking view of sea and mountains.

Irene's Lasagna Bolognese
Irene's Lamb Chops in port wine

Blog readers know I’m not a food critic. I do however have fun sharing my encounters with food and booze. Irene's lets rip with a Lasagna Bolognese that is revelatory. It’s a decadent blend of pasta, ground veal, Italian sausage, ricotta cheese and marinara topped with fried eggplant medallions. More than once I’ve had Lamb a’la Provence, grilled lamb chops with fresh rosemary in port wine demi-glace. I like to substitute sautéed spinach for the "garlic potato mash" and haricot verts.

Irene's Patio

It is 2020, and I am amending this 2018 article. Covid hammered New Orleans’ bars and restaurants, essentially brought them to their knees. Restrictions were so brutal, the original Johnny White’s Bar at 733 St. Peter Street closed after 51 years. It was heartbreaking. At Irene’s on the other hand, things are pretty much back to normal. To entice us, the restaurant posted images of its brick-floor patio surrounded by vine-covered antique brick walls. A trellis holds vines and ceiling fans. Scattered around are those tiny overhead lights commonly seen near bars and trattoria in narrow streets in Italy. The patio is decorated with classical style urns filled with hibiscus and ferns, as well as sculptural figures that borrow from Roman antiquity. There is a four-tiered fountain to make tinkly-water sounds typical of iconic French Quarter patios.

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