High Hat Café
4500 Freret St.
New Orleans, LA 70115
Napoleon's Rating: ***/*****
As Freret Street has grown into a restaurant row, High Hat Café has emerged as one of its welcoming, easy-going ambassadors, a place that blends Southern soul with deep New Orleans flavor and does so in a setting that feels both classic and fresh at once.
Dial up a Southern diner from central casting and it would probably look like High Hat. The walls are lined by big windows and ceiling fans turn overhead while underfoot there's an intricate tile mosaic pattern. The long cypress bar makes a good perch for solo diners or if you want to catch a game.
There's not much of a reception area here, just a card table holding menus, so when you first walk in it might feel like you're hovering over someone else's meal. But once you're brought to a table - or you seat yourself at the bar - everything falls into place. The waitresses are friendly and easygoing, as befits the setting, and the kitchen is speedy.
The interplay of Creole and Deep South is illustrated most clearly by the appetizer choices. You can get Delta-style tamales wrapped in cornhusks or shrimp remoulade over a wedge salad with a deviled egg. There's a dark, country-style chicken and andouille gumbo. And then there's pimento cheese, which comes with carrot sticks, celery and cucumber slices, making it an almost impossibly homespun plate.
Catfish is probably the centerpiece dish here, and it is good if not defining. Baskets of cornmeal-crusted, golden catfish come with slaw, fries and hushpuppies. The whole fried catfish is more trouble than it's worthy, with all those bones to pick through, and if you're looking to go lighter with the grilled catfish look instead to the more satisfying grilled Gulf fish (usually drum). Catfish is for frying, after all. The roasted pork is big, gnarly, crusty, tender, salty, though still a bit plain. It's missing something, and that something is ably filled by a side order of the ribbon-thin red cabbage slaw (the sides are all very good, especially the okra and tomatoes, which remains firm, and the greens with salty potlikker). There's a lot of bravado about burgers these days. By comparison, High Hat's entry in this category is unassuming, yet with a hand-formed patty, an ample bun and a spread of pimento cheese it is a more-than-worthy choice. Things get a little more highbrow on the specials board, though these dishes never seem out of place beside the basics. In its season, a soft shell crab was finished with andouille and rice stuffing, for instance, while more recently a pan-roasted hunk of wahoo shared the plate with peppery greens, cornmeal-crusted onion ribbons and a mound of wonderfully coarse grits.
There are always a few pies, which change up seasonally, and chocolaty chess pie is a year-round keeper. The go-to dessert, though, is called the Grillswith, as in "it's a grilled donut with ice cream." They take a glazed donut from a bakery just down the street and grill it until the sugary exterior essentially caramelizes, then they add a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream to melt over the top. It sounds decadent, even excessive, but it is simply beautiful.
Local drafts line the bar's taps, and the cocktails are classic and well-prepared. The wine list is short, but it's also smart and affordable, with interesting bottles and few over $30. Nonalcoholic drinks include refreshing house-made sodas and lemonades.
High Hat is perhaps a shade above what you remember paying at your old timey neighborhood café, but then the prices at those restaurants might actually be higher now than you recall too. Specials might creep up to $18, but most entrees are in the $15 range, sandwiches are between $10 and $12 and most appetizers are $8. Two people should be able to eat here for $75.
When chef Adolfo Garcia and his partner Chip Apperson opened High Hat Café in the summer of 2011 it was greeted as one of the signs that Freret Street had arrived as a restaurant row. The funny thing is, this friendly, casual, surprisingly deft restaurant feels like it has been around for a long time. That goes beyond its classic appearance and shows up in the convincing blend of Creole and Deep South dishes. It serves many roles - business lunch, family dinner, a quick burger, a casual date - and fulfills them well.