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South by Southeast Louisiana at High Hat Café

Ian McNulty
The dining room at the High Hat Café."

It's the dishes with a bit of a drawl that jump off the menu at High Hat Café — the Delta-style tamales napped neatly in their cornhusks, a pimento cheese plate, homey sides of beans and greens and the restaurant's centerpiece, fried catfish with hushpuppies, a dish that's practically the fish and chips of cotton country.

But before you get the idea that High Hat is a Southern outpost in this Creole city, you have to try the gumbo, a dark, rich, chicken and andouille number, or a racy, plump shrimp remoulade that many high-end bistros would do well to emulate.

High Hat is a bit of a hybrid then, part Deep South diner and part casual New Orleans caf . With its vintage ambiance, local sourcing and back-to-basics cooking, it's also in line with today's old-is-new aesthetic. This helps it feel very much at home at its address along the resurgent Freret Street commercial corridor, where restaurant openings have been coming fast and furious these days.

High Hat Cafe opened in June as a partnership between Chip Apperson and Adolfo Garcia, who opened his pizzeria Ancora just next door on the same night. Garcia's successful track record ensured the place would get noticed. But while he makes significant contributions here, Apperson is running the ship. He's a native of Memphis, just one of the cities where he's run restaurants, and his appreciation for Southern food outside of Louisiana helps inform half the hybrid equation at High Hat.

He named the place for a beer joint back home that he passed all the time, though never ventured in. As a kid, it had mythic connotations for him, in a forbidden fruit kind of way. The High Hat bar closed long ago, but all these years later Apperson was able to track down and buy its haunting old sign, which now hangs above the gorgeous cypress bar at his High Hat Café.

While the menu here is short and straightforward, there are more layers at work thanks to specials, the abundant use of local produce and the clear evidence of creative hands in the kitchen, namely those of chef Jeremy Wolgamott. This looks like a place where you'd find a meatloaf special, though here it will be belted by bacon and topped with a jammy, smoky sweet glaze. And that BLT? Lamb bacon and roasted tomatoes set it apart.

Other dishes were adapted from no less a source on Southern cooking than the Junior League of Baton Rouge and its indispensable cookbook River Road Recipes. But one of the most curious dishes at High Hat Café harkens back to Apperson's college days at the University of Virginia and a diner near campus there, now long-since gone, that served the Grillswith. This is a donut, warmed up on the diner griddle and topped with ice cream. For its own version, High Hat uses a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream from the Uptown New Orleans mirco-producer Quintin's Ice Cream. And for the donuts? Why, that calls for a short walk two blocks down toFreret Street Po-Boys & Donut Shop, where the High Hat crew picks up a dozen glazed each day for their singular dessert specialty.

As the restaurant row along this booming Uptown stretch keeps growing, cooperative dishes like that sound like Freret Street fusion all over.

High Hat Café
4500 Freret St.
New Orleans, 504-754-1336

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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