Down by the Riverside: Bistro dining on the Tchefunct

Driving into the dreamy sunset over Lake Pontchartrain on a warm spring evening, I watch the pink and purple clouds melt into the sky as I head to tiny Madisonville, where people stroll down sleepy streets that stretch lazily along the river.

Boaters from Covington, New Orleans, Slidell, and Baton Rouge dock across the street from a couple of great restaurants, Water Street Bistro and Morton’s. As I drive onto Water Street on this starlit Saturday night, the crowds are thick and there is scarcely a place to park.

The sign above Morton’s seafood restaurant on the corner says, “Hot boiled seafood when sign is flashing.” But I venture a bit further down to the Water Street Bistro, the classiest place in this tranquil, laid-back town. My brother, Ed, is waiting for me at the handsome mahogany bar, ice tea in hand and ready to treat me to a great dinner.A nautically inclined, well-traveled fellow, he knows the dining scene here like the back of his hand.

Water Street Bistro (804 Water St.; 985/845-3855) is housed in a handsome Creole cottage with a front porch where diners can linger and watch people coming off their boats on the Tchefuncte River just a stone’s throw from the restaurant. It is easy to settle into the peaceful pace in Madisonville, which beckons relaxation and tranquility. The placid streets and well-attended flower beds stretch to the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, which depicts the town’s interesting history as a port. Madisonville’s biggest event is the annual Wooden Boat Festival held in the fall at the museum (it is on the site of a former shipyard).

Lace curtains, ceiling fans, candlelit tables, and soft jazzy music set the tone for a marvelous dinner prepared by Chef Tony Monroe, who has been in the restaurant biz for the past 25 years and has owned six prior restaurants. His wife, Constance, runs the front of the house. Tony was also the former chef of Café Sbisa in New Orleans, owned by Larry Hill and the late John Picou. In its heyday, Sbisa’s was the talk of the town, a fine dining bohemian version of Galatoire’s where artists, writers, and actors used to hang out along with the city’s social elite.

Hot, crisp French bread arrives at the table, followed by marvelous appetizers that include a smooth-as-velvet paté Maison flecked with black truffles and served with toast points (a generous portion, easily enough for two). The crab claws sautéed in wine and garlic, finished with sweet parsley butter and served with tartar sauce are popular here, but my vote goes to the sautéed crab cakes. I have prepared and sampled crab cakes at various restaurants around Louisiana for 30 years and haven’t come across any quite so delightful, perhaps due to the fact that they were loosely packed, very light, and had an interesting twist: served on a bed of creamed sweet yellow corn, then drizzled with a mildly tart remoulade.

A couple of soups (try the gumbo) and three opulent salads are served between courses, including a classic blue cheese salad and a baby spinach and goat cheese salad tossed with a citrus balsamic vinaigrette, roasted beets, and pine nuts. Seven entrées are offered in addition to several nightly specials. A la carte choices include grilled filet of beef, rack of lamb with a coat of French Dijon mustard and seasoned bread crumbs, roasted duck with a fig port wine reduction sauce, and a couple of shrimp dishes, the best of which is grilled shrimp sautéed with sundried tomatoes, kalamata olives, garlic, capers, artichoke hearts, leeks, and red onions, served on a bed of baby spinach and topped with feta and pine nuts (inspired by the Mediterranean).

A must-try is the melt-in-the-mouth panéed veal, which is served with fettuccine tossed in a marinara or Alfredo sauce (go for the Alfredo) and accompanied by a pile of fresh green beans. A wonderful special worth sampling when available is grilled redfish on a bed of spinach with a ribbon of balsamic reduction sauce and a generous amount of buttery lump crabmeat blended with capers on top. The redfish was so fresh that it could have jumped right out of the boat just a few hours earlier. Just a couple of days before I had the redfish at Galatoire’s for lunch, and the redfish at Water Street Bistro was far better, surprisingly.

It was wonderful to see the same chocolate sin cake that used to be popular on Café Sbisa’s menu. It is every bit as good, dense and rich, creamy and smooth, and great with a cup of coffee. After dinner, we strolled around and enjoyed the boats tied up on the dock as a strong breeze came in from the Tchefuncte River. The streets grew more and more quiet, and it was time to head back across Lake Pontchartrain, to the city that never sleeps. As I watched the full moon glimmer over the water on the way back home I vowed to make regular trips across the lake to tranquil Madisonville, a world apart from busy New Orleans although just 45 minutes away.


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