Big-Ass Shrimp at a New Orleans Institution

So last night was Captain Sarcastic’s birthday dinner. Unfortunately, Nola’s continuing illness kept her from joining us. It turned into a small party (seven adults, one baby Sun–always an exemplary baby when dining out) meeting at Pascal’s Manale restaurant on Napoleon Avenue uptown.

Manale’s is an old-school New Orleans place. We used to go there about once a year or so when my folks came to town. It’s really an Italian restaurant with strong Creole influences. There are lots of seafood dishes on the menu and there’s an oyster bar right at the door when you walk in. The walls are covered with pictures of movie and TV stars who’ve dined there over the years. They are really heavy on personalities from the 70’s and 80’s. CS spotted a Gene Simmons-autographed picture of Kiss and recognized it as one “from the make-up years.”

Manale’s most famous dish is the barbecued shrimp, with the barbecue part a complete misnomer. Served in a large soup bowl, the dish features a dozen or so large shrimp, whole, unpeeled, with heads on. What I mean by large shrimp, I’ll say what I said last night when the dishes appeared at the table: “Those are some big-ass shrimp.” Big-ass shrimp served in a butter-olive oil-spice-and-pepper sauce. It’s a messy affair to peel big-ass shrimp covered in butter sauce; Manale’s supplies a bib to anyone who orders it.

Tom Fitzmorris calls it one of the four or five best dishes in New Orleans cooking. Here is his account of how the dish came to be (go here for Tom’s recipe):

They’re neither grilled nor smoked, and there’s no barbecue sauce. It was created in the mid-1950s at Pascal’s Manale Restaurant. A regular customer came in and reported that he’d enjoyed a dish in a Chicago restaurant that he though was made with shrimp, butter, and pepper. He asked Pascal Radosta to make it. Radosta took a flyer at it. The customer said that the taste was not the same, but he liked the new dish even better. So was born the signature dish at Manale’s.

The dish is simple: huge whole shrimp in a tremendous amount of butter and black pepper. The essential ingredient is large, heads-on shrimp, since the fat in the shrimp heads makes most of the flavor.

Everyone at the table save myself and one other ordered the barbecued shrimp. I had one of the specials the waitress told us about in her opening spiel, a fried drum fillet topped with crawfish étouffée. M**** ordered their veal parmigiana, one of the restaurant’s Italian dishes. Most of us started off with gumbo, which was hot, spicy and full of seafood. They’re also not stingy with the French bread, a necessary accessory at Manales to sop up the barbecued shrimp sauce. No food porn, though. I didn’t bring a camera.

C***** pulled the waitress aside as she was clearing the dishes and pointed to CS, “It’s his birthday.” “Does he like bread pudding?” the waitress replied. She looked at me, I said, “I think so.” A couple of minutes later a parade of all the waiters in the place came into the dining room and got everyone in the joint to sing “Happy Birthday” to CS. After sufficient embarrassment he dug into his dessert, pronounced the bread pudding “too sweet,” and passed it around the table for everyone to taste. The sauce was a bit sweet and lacked the whiskey punch found at the Bon Ton, but was super buttery and creamy. The bread pudding itself wasn’t sweet at all and was moist, cinnamony and full of raisins.

Manale’s took on about 4 feet of water during Katrina. I don’t know whether they rescued all those old photos before it flooded or whether they had them all restored, but the atmosphere is unchanged from the last time I was there before the storm. They’ve come back nicely, and if Saturday’s crowd is any indication, I think they won’t have too much trouble making it in the long run. I also hear Charlie’s Steakhouse a block up Dryades will be back soon. All good news.

6 Responses to Big-Ass Shrimp at a New Orleans Institution

  1. stacey on February 17, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    oh wow. I still haven’t made it there at all!! Now I really really really want to go because that sounds just amazing.

  2. Nola on February 17, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    Damn Death. Glad everyone had a good time!!

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  4. Katie on February 17, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    I’ve lived 5 blocks from Pascal’s Manale for almost 2 years and have yet to set foot in it. But now I feel compelled, especially since you labeled it an institution and it seems like my life’s mission now is to eat at every place that falls into that category.

    We ate at Gautreau’s a few weeks ago (slightly more uptown of Pascal’s) and while pricey, the food was absolutely awesome. If you haven’t been since it re-opened, I highly recommend it.

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  6. Wendy on February 17, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    We have never been there, either, but when I was pregnant with the first parasite I craved BBQ shrimp. Hubby brought him this container with whole shrimps swimming around in this liquid. Being pregnant, I nearly lose my cookies. George enjoyed my rejected shrimp.

    CS told us about the BBQ shrimp sandwich they have for lunch. Now, that is something I would try. I am not one for peeling shrimp. I am spoilt.

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