Ruby Slipper Cafe
139 S Cortez St
New Orleans, LA 70119
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
The Ruby Slipper Café is one of those post-Katrina success stories bubbling up in neighborhoods around New Orleans. Before the storm, its Mid-City address was a wretched corner store and a magnet for trouble. But after the disaster, new owners took over and a thorough renovation of the building produced this charming breakfast and lunch spot. It has caught on big time, proving the appeal of a fresh approach to familiar dishes in an attractive and welcoming setting.
This is a sweet heart of a place. Big, broad windows let in lots of light and give views of the small urban farm flourishing just across the street. The interior gleams with recovered and repurposed woodwork and there is a colorful collection of local art on the walls. The clientele is as diverse as the surrounding neighborhood.
The Ruby Slipper is usually pretty busy during the week, but on the weekends you can expect a crowd for brunch. Show up after 9 a.m. on Saturday or Sunday and you're probably in for a bit of a wait outside. On some mornings it looks like there's a small block party going on around the Ruby Slipper's door. But the staff seems to manage the numbers pretty well. The menu is straightforward, but the servers aren't bashful about making recommendations if you need help deciding.
First courses really only come into play on the lunch menu, where you'll find a soup of the day and a few items like decent sweet potato fries and fried green tomatoes. Gumbos always make a good start here, and they have smoky, thick roux and lots of chicken and sausage.
Little things go a long way in making a memorable meal, especially within the familiar frame of American breakfast. So the seeded wheat bread used for toast, the delicious, locally-sourced sausage grilled up for breakfast sandwiches and the plump local shrimp worked in to a bowl of grits with rosemary and Abita beer butter sauce all make good impressions at the Ruby Slipper. The specials, of course, are where the creative cooking of chef Nate Hilderbrand really shines though. At breakfast, look for "eggs cochon" made with slow-cooked pork debris and poached eggs over a biscuit, or "duck and cover," a dish with duck debris over crispy sweet potato "hay" with a rich, garlicky woodland sauce and eggs. The crab cake is another great special, paired with eggs as a brunch dish. One highlight on the standard list of omelets is the "three little pigs," which is paved with a generous amount of bacon, sausage and ham bound together with egg and Swiss. Burgers, deli-style sandwiches and entrée salads are the stock in trade on the lunch menu, but again look to the specials board for Hilderbrand's best work. Pecan-coated chicken breast with citrus zest and quesadillas with house-made cheese are favorites.
Glass plates on the service counter hold breakfast pastries in the morning and seductively simple cookies and cupcakes later in the day.
Coffee, the first standard for any place serving breakfast, is very good at the Ruby Slipper. There is also a limited bar, and on weekends it's hard to resist a bloody Mary or a mimosa when so many other people in the busy dining room -- and those waiting outside -- are sipping them.
Prices may be a shade higher than the standard breakfast joint/sandwich shop, but the groceries and the cooking are also better and warrant the uptick. Most dishes on the standard menu still are under $10, though specials can creep up. Two people should be able to have brunch here for less than $30.
The Ruby Slipper is found down a Mid-City side street, but it didn't take long for word to spread about this place. Now people from many other neighborhoods make the trek for breakfast and brunch. It's no wonder. The place is inherently charming, well-run and serves dishes that would be at home at much more upscale restaurants.