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Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Written by Mary Tutwiler

The Elephant Room steaks out new dining territory with a rare combination of beef and burlesque

Girls, girls, girls. And one guy. In a bustier. Les Marionettes, Lafayette’s first burlesque troop, take the stage in a sexy sashay and break into their opening number. “Bonjour, hello, good evening to you. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.” Quite an interesting view it is.

The girls in their striped stockings and cinched waists, bartenders clad in hot pink shirts with black suspenders and arm garters, the flattering lavender lighting, the beaded black chandeliers — if you hadn’t driven yourself down Kaliste Saloom and parked your car across the street from Albertsons you might be wondering where in the world you’ve landed. The conservative south side of Lafayette? No way.
Well think again. Restaurateur Gene Todaro’s new place, The Elephant Room, with its throwback décor, its naughty playfulness, its classic cocktails and most of all its stunningly good steaks, is just what the doctor ordered to enliven the restaurant scene of New Orleans’ Cajun cousin, a small food town that’s finally growing up.

20100512-cover-0102“Be a girl, let your hair down.” That’s Nicole Jordan’s take on burlesque. Jordan, curvy and dimpled as one of her dancers, is the general manager of both of Todaro’s Lafayette restaurants, the Elephant Room and Marcello’s Wine Market Café, and she is the driving force behind the burlesque theme at The Elephant Room. “We didn’t want a boy’s club,” she says of the restaurant, which if you judge it by its menu alone, is a nouveau traditional steakhouse.

“I wanted a steakhouse that appealed to women,” adds Todaro, his accent still as thickly Sicilian as if he’d stepped right off the boat, despite 49 years of living in Louisiana. “Not dark leather and paneling, not cigars.”

Todaro is clearly taking a run at the most popular “boy’s club” in town, Ruth’s Chris. For 25 years, Ruth’s Chris, founded by New Orleanean Ruth Fertel in 1965, and franchised in Lafayette shortly after, has been a wildly popular restaurant that set the bar for the way we eat steak — volcanically hot, under a flowing sheen of sizzling butter.

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The 24 oz. Allen Brothers bone-in ribeye with a side of
|sweet potato and andouille hash

Ruth’s Chris’ steaks are seared on a flattop or grilled at 1,800 degrees in the industry standard, a Montague broiler. Aged prime beef, grass-fed in the Midwest, served in five different cuts, comes a la carte. All the sides, from the shoestring french fries to the creamed spinach, are additional orders, which tally up fast. Add in valet parking, a clubby bar, excellent service and an impressive wine list, and diners tend to overlook the uncomfortable booths and corporate culture: you can walk into most of the 116 Ruth’s Chris restaurants in the country and know which way to turn for the men’s room; corporate locations are cookie cutter images of the one in Metairie in suburban New Orleans.

Todaro claims a steakhouse was the last thing on his mind when he collected the keys to the old Fazoli’s at the intersection of Kaliste Saloom and Ambassador Caffery on a handshake. “I had looked at this location as a wine shop or liquor store before I had opened the café,” he says. Over-priced for the market, and vacant for three years because of litigation between the property owner and franchisee, the Fazoli’s building was Todaro’s when he made the right offer on the right day at the right time.

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Les Marionettes perform “Hello My Darlin’.”

The next question was what to do with the place, which had the boxy low-ceilinged sadness of a franchise business built for profit rather than pleasure. “I gotta kitchen here that I would have had to tear out,” Todaro says, remembering out loud, “so I’ll try a restaurant. But what type of restaurant? We felt that a steakhouse would do well. We’re far enough from Ruth’s Chris, all the others are franchises that only serve choice [rather than prime] beef...” Todaro simultaneously shrugs, frowns and laughs with a characteristic “why the hell not” glint in his eye.

That good-humored, self-deprecating attitude cloaks a canaille financial sensibility which Todaro acknowledges. “I got a feel for business,” he grins.

“He’s a savant when it comes to numbers,” claims Jordan.

“Another thing. We had a huge response from our customers at the café,” says Todaro. The Allen Brothers (a family business, founded in Chicago in 1893 to supply prime meat) filet and an Argentinean steak flew out of the kitchen. “They were off the menu. People kept telling us they were the best steaks they ever had,” says Todaro. “And they get sides with it.”

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Gene Todaro and Nicole Jordan

The nightclub concept is nothing new for Todaro either. In the 1980s he opened the first of his eponymous succession of businesses, Marcello’s, named for one of his brothers. Musicians the likes of Percy Sledge and Stevie Ray Vaughn played there, and Todaro says he once turned down the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “I didn’t know who the hell they were.” But making the leap into the world of burlesque is certainly heading into new territory.

“We were thinking speakeasy,” says Jordan. “Moulin Rouge, Cabaret, Dorothy Draper. We wanted a place that’s fun and sexy. Burlesque offers the whole naughty side, but it’s not vulgar.”

But I digress. While the burlesque show is only once a month, the food takes center stage every night. The star of the menu is, of course, meat, and plenty of it. Executive Chef Blakley Kymen handles it the way you want it done, with a woman’s touch.

My all-out favorite appetizer is a caveman special. Three fat, roasted shin bones — filled with soft, rich marrow, served with smoked sea salt, crisp toast and a mushroom marmalade — are beyond indulgent. I’ve never before had enough marrow to sate my hunger for this impossibly succulent delicacy. At The Elephant Room, I almost did, and probably would have killed myself dipping into the marrow bones, but I was polite (though my covetousness was thinly disguised) enough to share.

Breathe. Calm down. Marrow is a hard act to follow, but the deeply woodsy wild mushroom bisque can stand up on its own terms.

The Elephant Room puns on the term Raw Bar, offering not surf but turf, two classic raw beef dishes — steak tartare and carpaccio. For your finely chopped raw beef or the paper thin sliced medallions, you can choose South American filet, Allen Brothers, Chicago filet or tuna (the beef of the sea). Both appetizers come topped with a flourish of sharp baby arugula and julienned Parmesan, perfect foils for the luscious beef.

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Roasted marrow bones and mushroom marmalade

Where Todaro really throws down the gauntlet is the array of boutique beef. Prime steaks come from Chicago, South America, Argentina and Montana. The beef from Montana is particularly interesting. The steaks come from Piedmontese cattle, a breed from the Italian foothills, that are renowned for their lean meat yet full flavor. There are also bison steaks, Berkshire pork, American lamb and Opelousas chicken.

The Montague broiler in the kitchen is manned by Jacob Hamilton and Chris Encalarde, two former Ruth’s Chris cooks who know how to turn out a perfect, medium rare, dry-aged strip, or a bone-in ribeye beautifully basted by its own marbling, that’s really too big to eat in one sitting yet impossible to abandon. Guild the lily with sautéed lump crabmeat, shrimp or lobster.

Potatoes come with the entrées, but there is one side you really shouldn’t leave without trying. The savory spinach and gruyere bread pudding is so simple and good it will break your heart and your diet.

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South American filet a la carpaccio

Todaro’s successful innovation at Marcello’s Wine Market and Café, combining his retail wine shop in house with a $10 corkage fee is carried over to The Elephant Room. Selecting wine, which is racked throughout the restaurant, gives diners a diversion while they wait for a table, and somehow, seeking out a bottle rather than reading a wine list adds a lot of romance to the pour.
Desserts are simple. I loved the angel food baby cakes with fresh fruit. It’s the kind of thing you might make at home, piling on whipped cream and hand chosen berries. Or there’s the sexy little crème brulée, perfumed with rose and violet essences, the sort of 19th century amusement that plays with your senses, confusing nature and art, and preparing you for the main event.
I’m talking about the 11 p.m. burlesque show.

Before we go any further down this road, let’s talk about what burlesque is not. It’s not stripping. No pasties, no g-strings, no pole dancing. It’s cerebral theatre, sexy but fun.

Here’s how Johanna Devine, playwright, musician and co-author of The Dream of the Marionettes, defines the art form: “The misunderstanding about burlesque is that it’s a strip show. Burlesque is a parody. Parodying the roles of people in society, parodying the rich, parodying social norms. It’s comedy above all else. It helps to have this sexy feel.

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Audience interaction is part of the show.

“Burlesque is traditionally a women’s art form. The most popular burlesque acts at the turn of the century were women parodying other plays, making fun of serious dramatic works. That’s what we were going for, and Nicole got it immediately when she saw the Marionettes last year. I’m really appreciative that there’s a place in town going for that aesthetic. It’s a good meeting of the minds.”

It’s also a lot of fun. The bar’s in full throttle late Saturday night cranking out pre-Prohibition cocktails. Lots of bubbly as well, but for the mood of the evening I went with the Vieux Carre, a nod to New Orleans’ sweet and bitter times in the French Quarter.

Bar snacks include salty rosemary pistachios and sweet chocolate truffles. Which get you ready for the show.

Sure, it’s suggestive, in the way that’s become part of the American canon. Remember that great old commercial featuring Edie Adams as a cigarette girl for Muriel cigars? Her tag line was, “Why don’t you pick me up and smoke me sometime?”

That’s the mood: coy, suggestive, but full of good humor.

The show is a cabaret of styles. The marionettes, girls and drag queen, sing a catalogue of clever songs full of double entendres. There’s torch singing, belly dancing, even a fan dance. The troop is backed up by a solid band that last Saturday included David Egan on keyboards, Eric Fry on bass, Johanna Devine on guitar and Roy Durand on drums. Part of the act is to invite audience participation, and the audience jumped right in; by the time the last tunes filled the club everybody was on their feet, dancing.

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Angel food baby cakes with fruit compote

Is it too much for Lafayette? The rumor mill has been grinding out all sorts of gossip. “Has Gene lost his marbles?” “Hooters for the well-heeled.” “Bourbon Street on the Bayou.” P’shaw. I’ve seen more skin at Zeus when the Oasis belly dancers take the floor. Sitting there, dressed to the nines, sipping my swanky cocktail, I felt more than at ease. The show is all about the empowerment of women who enjoy being women. I certainly would bring my mom, my daughter, and my salty grandmother, who would have gotten a kick out of it.

Lafayette, look in the mirror. Are we such a blue stocking town that we can’t enjoy a little bawdy good humor with our steaks? It’s time to grow up.

Grazie, Gene.

The Elephant Room, 2605 Kaliste Saloom Road, 989-4155
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Saturday Night Shows: 11 p.m.-till. Shows are monthly; call for more information on the date. Reservations recommended.

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