3127 Esplanade Ave
New Orleans, LA 70119
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
Café Degas takes its name from a small piece of local history, namely the stint that French Impressionist Edgar Degas spent in the Crescent City back in the 19th century. This month, March 2011, the restaurant celebrates its own little piece of history - its 25th year in business in Faubourg St. John. During that time, it has established itself as one of the city's leading French bistros with a solid regular menu, inventive specials and a setting like no other.
A meal at Café Degas is as close as you can get to dining outdoors without actually being exposed to the elements. The dining room is essentially a covered deck. Plastic flaps serve as walls when the weather is too hot or too cold, but there's always the feeling of dining in a garden. A tree trunk extends through the roof like a column, hanging plants festoon the exposed rafters and the iron tables and chairs would be appropriate for a patio. It gives the place a laidback vibe, and when those flaps are open in makes the dining room feel like a natural extension of the colorful, bustling neighborhood around it.
The wait staff here is composed of a mixture of veterans and young people who together, through their strengths and foibles, seem to compose an archetype of typical French bistro service. From night to night, and even from course to course, it can seem offhand but friendly, occasionally overwhelmed and forgetful, though also personable and sometimes downright charming.
Café Degas has a classic bistro menu, and that means a classic way to start a mean is onion soup. It's a traditional rendition with a gooey lid of bubbly cheese and a nut-brown broth laden with onions. A recent special of red chowder with fried oysters was a good option too. One of the most popular dishes is the crab salad, which can stand as either a first course or a very light entrée. It's a composition of beautiful lump crabmeat over fresh arugula with segments of juicy grapefruit, a speckling of black pepper and a crown of delicately fried shallots. The mussels can similarly work as either a shared starter or a hands-on entrée. Also consider the traditional charcuterie to start things off. The pate board with accoutrements should be shared around the table, while you might want to hog the boudin noir for yourself.
Café Degas does bang-up versions of the types of dishes many people expressly crave when they arrive at a French bistro: the salad Niçoise, the hanger steak with frites and hearty toasted garlic Bordelaise sauce, the sautéed liver with bacon and caramelized onions. But don't let the familiar roster of bistro hits keep you from the daily specials. You may not specifically crave them going in, but they are often the best dishes offered and they show the kitchen's range beyond the classics. For instance, a recent duck confit got big, bold flavor from smoked Vadalia onions and spicy broccoli rabe all set off by a honey and sherry gastrique. Another standout was a chicken breast crusted with parmesan and punched up with watermelon, red onion, salty feta, pickled okra and thyme vinaigrette. Options at lunch and brunch can be surprisingly affordable and simply rewarding. The omelet, for instance, does not scream for attention, but its filling of plump shrimp, bits of bacon and buttery wild mushrooms, and the velvety texture of the egg casing, all made it roundly satisfying.
The crème brulee is the expected and traditional dessert at this bistro, though if you're in the mood a cheese board from the appetizer list makes a fine finale and also serves to lengthen the time you spend at the table with good company. The cheeses are always interesting and the selection changes frequently.
The wine list, naturally, is weighted toward French labels, and it's arranged by region. The list is fairly expensive, though you can still find a few selections below $30. Cocktails are first-rate, though don't look for anything too trendy.
Order from the regular menu, and keep the drinks at bay, and Café Degas can be a refreshingly reasonable expense. Most entrees are under $20, and at lunch and brunch most are under $15. To indulge a bit, however, a couple should expect to spend about $120 at dinner.
Over the course of a quarter-decade, Café Degas has attained the status of a modern day neighborhood institution. It can be equal parts romantic and practical, upscale and comfortable.