Grand Café has been in the top tier of my dream-dining destinations ever since wunder-chef Jamie Malone stepped in to marry her kitchen talent with her hospitality gene: the combo it takes to get guests returning as well as critics gushing. So, as soon as I learned that she’d been tapped to create a new take-out menu concept for Downtown’s Eastside, life under COVID looked a whole lot brighter. I couldn’t wait.
Well, perhaps she should have. A few rehearsals might have worked out the kinks, which start in the cumbersome online-only ordering process. One cannot order via phone, as I’ve been doing during the reign of the virus, so that I can ask a few questions about the menu; in fact, one cannot even phone there before 3 p.m. or one is soundly chastised. Nor can one walk up to the window backing the sidewalk tables and place your bet. No online order, no food. And no bread, although a boule is listed on the menu anyway ($8, not available).
The concept has been dubbed La Pistola (“the pistol” — don’t get me started), and its menu focuses on Southern seafood and ham, as in Louisiana. As in Spain. (Oh, there’s a pair of burgers — beef, mushroom — if you really must.) Southern beverages, too, ranging from bubbly cava, tempranillo and sherry to Red Stripe and lemonade.
Consider this prime picnic fare. Your take-away bag even supplies a handy list of nearby parks (Gold Medal, Stone Arch, etc.) if you cannot wait to hit the Chain of Lakes. And if you order the crawfish boil (two pounds for $38, geared to serve four polite, or two serious, eaters), you’ll find a brown paper “tablecloth” to unfold, plastic surgical gloves for the fastidious to use to peel the little varmints and those embarrassing bibs you get whenever you go to a lobster joint. Paper dishes and plastic cutlery are included, too.
The crawfish — dozens of them, maybe three inches long with a slender inch of tail meat to prize out (and a wisp in the itty-bitty claws for the truly dedicated) — emerge from a spicy and modestly hot Old Bay-type brine, bits of onion clinging to their shells. They’re joined by a few rounds of meaty, mild-flavored andouille sausage, several flaky new potatoes and a few inch-plus lengths of broiled corn on the cob. A pair of too-tiny lemon wedges and a couple of tablespoons of a lovely, lemony mayo are terrific, if insufficient, additions. A dolly’s bottle of Tabasco completes the assortment.
It’s a pretty accurate reconstruction of a small-town experience in the bayou, where elbows meet newspapers on a picnic table. Did I mention that bread would have been nice?
The best-seller, however, (I was told at the pick-up window) is the single serving of almost half a lobster, Thermidor-style, with fries and Alabama white sauce ($28). I personally was underwhelmed and wouldn’t order it twice (nor does it repre- sent value for money). A drive-in-type paper basket is loaded with shoestring fries — tender and fresh but so overly, enthusiastically, through-and-through salty that after two or three, I quit.
On top rests half a lobster shell filled with chopped bits of steamed flesh, not particularly sweet nor memorable, all visited by a light, slightly sharp and creamy white sauce. A dollop of that lovely, lemony mayo and another of ketchup are included on the side.
The menu also offers white anchovies and hand-sliced Mangalitsa or Iberian ham — served (it says) with sourdough bread. Dessert, too: a lemon-blueberry icebox cake to serve two ($8). Macerated berries and blueberry jam mold graham cracker crumbs into a “cake,” topped with a lovely sheen of satiny, lemon-infused mascarpone. A delicious update on a blast from the past.
By the way, I simply spied a take-away bag waiting on the sidewalk counter, grabbed it with, “That’s mine,” and walked off — no identification asked for or offered. Just sayin’…