New Orleans Is the Eggs Benedict Capital of the World
Think you know how to fancy up a Benny? Let the 504 show you how it’s done.
People have feelings when it comes to brunch. Whatever you think about the most leisurely meal, when you conjure its image, it’s hard not to imagine one specific dish: eggs Benedict. On the brunch table, poached eggs topped with hollandaise reign supreme, whether or not the chef decides to pair them with the classic Canadian bacon or anything from crab cakes, to juicy burger patties, smoked duck, or low-country boiled seafood. Name the trend, and there’s likely to have been a Benedict version of it at some point.
In New Orleans, we have something of a history when it comes to Benedicting. Getting creative with the dish goes back almost to the invention of the Benny itself, likely somewhere around the mid or late 19th Century, depending on whom you ask. While it was probably created in New York, these variations on it were first served in the Big Easy, where we’ve been striving to achieve the apogee of Benedict innovation since the late 1800s, starting at Antoine’s Restaurant.
Perhaps not the earliest Benny variant, eggs Sardou is one of the most classic, if not the most elegant. New Orleans has a fine tradition of naming dishes after notable citizens, among them the popular dramatist Victorien Sardou, author of La Tosca, who’d been passing through the Crescent City and dined at Antoine's, which today is the oldest French Creole restaurant in town. Instead of English muffins, a Sardou employs artichoke bottoms for a more vegetal feel. Add to that a pair of criss-crossed anchovy fillets, shaved black truffle, and diced crispy ham, and you have an artful dish that makes a standard Benedict seem pedestrian by comparison.
But not all eggs Sardou are created equal; you’ll often see versions of the dish that use creamed spinach, or eschew the artichoke bottom in favor of artichoke hearts. Executive Chef Michael Regua, who’s worked in the kitchen at Antoine’s for 45 years, concurs.
“I've had eggs Sardou in different parts of the world, and I've had eggs Sardou—or they called it eggs Sardou—on a crab cake or whatever. It’s not the same. What I love about the dish here is that after you break into the egg when you eat it, you're getting the saltiness of the anchovy, that creaminess from the hollandaise, and then that artichoke bottom gives you that great vegetable taste. And then you're getting a crunch from the ham that was toasted and put on there, and then, well, truffle…. When I bite into it, I love the idea of getting all of those things together. To me, that's what makes the eggs Sardou at Antoine's the top-level spot.”
Right around the corner from Antoine’s, you’ll find another historic Creole eatery in Quarter, easily recognizable from afar by its signature coat of pink paint. Brennan’s has been delighting brunchers since the late 1940s, but one dish stands out, thanks to original owner Owen Brennan’s penchant for snacking in the restaurant’s kitchen.
According to Executive Chef Slade Rushing, “The story I've been told is that Owen was passing through the kitchen during a busy brunch shift, and it's typical that he would just grab something and put hollandaise and this marchand du vin sauce on it and maybe eat it with English muffins or bread, and it kind of slowly evolved into, ‘Maybe I’ll try that with poach eggs,’ or, ‘Let me try that with Canadian bacon and this amazing marchand du vin sauce.’ And that was history.”
Eggs Hussarde, as it’s now known, is essentially a standard Benedict with one crucial, beautiful addition: a generous helping a dark marchand du vin sauce loaded with mushrooms that takes the dish to the adult’s table. You'd never believe that eggs Benedict needed a second sauce, but it’s true, and it's something that only New Orleans could have come up with.
“The thing that makes this Benedict take original to Brennan's, and to the City of New Orleans,” Rushing says, “is that wonderful beef essence with these earthy mushrooms, the red wine with its deep acidity, the smokey marrow bones to go with these poached eggs and that zesty hollandaise, with soft English muffins that we make in house. I'm not kidding, if I order a dish here for myself to eat personally, it's our eggs Hussarde. It's a perfect Benedict reinterpreted with a New Orleans touch.”
Not all NOLA takes on the Benny go back a hundred years. Take, for instance, Arnaud’s, a Big Easy institution since 1918.
By the mid to late ‘90s, staying current for Arnaud’s meant finding ways to adhere to tradition while keeping a spark of creativity alight. Enter eggs Fauteux. “It was a riff on smoked salmon,” says current proprietor Katy Casbarian, “which is not indigenous to our waters, but pompano was plentiful. You really weren't seeing that on menus in New Orleans at all then. Now, of course, you see smoked trout and smoked catfish dip on menus here all the time. But we were the first to be featuring a house-smoked gulf fish the same way one would enjoy a smoked salmon, with the traditional accoutrements of capers, eggs, onions, and toast points, and it’s to die for. So it was just a natural fit to put on an English muffin with a poached egg and a little hollandaise sauce.”
This, of course, is the essence of what makes eggs Fauteux [pronounced “PHO-to”] so emblematic of New Orleans. Instead of shipping in salmon from the Alaska to smoke, we just find a fish right here in the Gulf of Mexico that’ll do the job just as nicely. “Pompano is a great fish to smoke,” Casbarian says, “because it has a high fat content, so it picks up that great smoky flavor without drying the fish out.”
As for that name? “The trend at the time for grand dame restaurants was to name special dishes for regular guests or significant people associated with the restaurant, and Marshall Fauteux was a long-time manager here. He was actually the lunch and brunch maitre’d. The person had to have a strong bond with the restaurant, and the dish needed a strong Creole French name, and ‘Fauteux’ hit all the marks. Well, even though it’s Canadian French, but close enough!”
Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict
While the old heavy hitters of New Orleans Creole fine dining are in the French Quarter, there’s one exceptional outlier: Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District. Swathed handsomely in baby blue and white, Commander’s has been the culinary home to both Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, not to mention Jamie Shannon, current chef Tory McPhail, and local culinary heroes like Frank Brigtsen and Greg Sonnier. And, like its Creole kin, Commander’s delights in the first meal of the day.
"I love eggs. Eggs paid for my education! They're a big part of what we do,” says Ti Adelaide Martin, Commander’s current co-proprietor. But when it comes to a Benedict, Ti’s not a fan.
“The truth is, I don't think eggs Benedict is very good,” she says. “Historically we get this horrifically hard Holland rusk that you couldn't eat, and that would slide all over your plate and into your lap and everything else, and sometimes a not-so-great piece of ham, and hollandaise... These are good ideas, but really, it’s kind of a tough dish. Not always executed really well.”
So, back in the mid ‘90s, the Commander’s team, then led by Jamie Shannon, wanted to jazz up what they thought was a tired classic. Shannon decided to retire the Canadian bacon for roasted pork loin, substitute a buttermilk biscuit for the muffin, and add tasso to the hollandaise. All it needed was a name.
“He's sitting there one day with my mom [Ella Brennan], and said, 'Well, we can't call this eggs Benedict. Even though it's the same ingredients, people are going to be weirded out that it's not exactly the same thing. So they were just sitting there at the kitchen table, and Mom said, "Tell me your wife's name,' and he said, 'Jeanette.' And she said, 'That is so perfect for New Orleans.' So we called it eggs Jeanette. We've been doing versions of it ever since, with many tweaks and changes along the way. It's kinda hard to beat.”
The current incarnation, now called “Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict,” is a slightly changed version of the original eggs Jeanette, with a black pepper buttermilk biscuit, pork shoulder smoked over pecan shells and mesquite for 16 hours, a mushroom fricassee, and poached eggs topped with that spicy, smoky tasso hollandaise.
"It's unique, definitely something I haven't seen anywhere else,” sous chef Amy Mehrtens says. “It's really a testament to Jamie Shannon’s time as chef here. It's got all of those great Southern qualities: it’s got the pulled pork, it's got the biscuit, it's got something creamy and fatty and delicious. You have the eggs, and then you have the gravy to pull it all together, so it's very Southern to me, but also very New Orleans."