Ike Pummels Louisiana-based Restaurants

September 30, 2008

Three years after Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans’ restaurant industry to its knees, Hurricane Ike has delivered a crippling blow to three New Orleans area restaurant families.

Middendorf’s, the legendary seafood house in Manchac, La., was so badly flooded by Ike that the original 74-year-old building that survived two storms three years ago is now slated for demolition, said chef Horst Pfeifer, who bought Middendorf’s with his wife, Karen, after effectively losing Bella Luna, their French Quarter restaurant, to the forces of Katrina.

In Houston, the branch of the Brennan family that owns, among other restaurants, Commander’s Palace, suffered a devastating fire that appears to have destroyed Brennan’s of Houston, and left a restaurant employee and his 4-year-old daughter severely burned.

In Lafitte, La., David Volion opened Voleo’s in his hometown after earning his stripes cooking at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, only to see it flooded by Rita, and again by Ike’s storm surge, prompting Volion to describe the damage in terms not suited for publication in a daily newspaper.

The three were the most prominent among the many restaurants and cafes operating in coastal communities that were damaged. Among others in the area damaged were Friends Coastal Restaurant in Madisonville, and the Crab Trap in Frenier, just down the highway from Middendorf’s.

Details on the extent of those damages or plans for reopening were not available.

In Houston, Brennan’s was destroyed by a fire that broke out as Ike throttled the city with wind and rain. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Alex Brennan-Martin runs Brennan’s of Houston, and was among several people in the restaurant when the fire broke out.

“Our ‘Wine Guy’ James Koonce and his 4-year-old daughter, Katharine, were seriously burned in the fire,” he said in a statement. “Brennan’s has set up a fund to help the Koonce family during the long recovery. Donations may be made in their name at any Amegy Bank of Texas location (visit www.amegybank.com for locations). Any donation would be greatly appreciated, along with your thoughts and prayers.”

A local representative confirmed that Ti Martin, co-owner of Commander’s Palace, has visited the little girl in California, where she is being treated.

A third employee, general manager Carl Walker, was treated for injuries and released, a Brennan’s spokesman said. Walker is a former sous chef at Mr. B’s Bistro and executive sous chef at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.

Brennan-Martin vowed to rebuild Brennan’s of Houston, which is among the most venerable restaurants operated by the Brennan family. It is a successful remnant of the initial expansion plans advanced by Ella Brennan that led to a rift in the New Orleans family, and it is well-known in Houston as a special occasion standby.

Like Commander’s, which had to be rebuilt after Katrina, the Houston restaurant is known for its lavish brunches and joyful spin on fine dining, but its Texas-Creole cuisine is its own. Randy Evans, the restaurant’s executive chef, has been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award.

“They created the crawfish enchilada,” Ti Martin said of Brennan’s of Houston. “And they do a serious turtle soup that’s different than ours.”

In the wake of Katrina, Brennan-Martin, who has run the Houston restaurant for more than 20 years, established the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund. The charity raised more than $1 million to help struggling local restaurant professionals.

“In the history of the U.S., I can’t think of another city that was better than Houston was to New Orleans” after Katrina, Ti Martin said. “I hope that we all remember and that we can find ways to help whatever way we can. Because it’s rough over there. And wow, were they good to us.”

In Manchac, the Pfeifers enjoyed some of that good will shortly after Ike, when groups of volunteers descended on the restaurant to help with the initial cleanup.

“We hauled out 60 yards of garbage – tables, chairs, refrigeration,” Horst Pfeifer said. “Everything is damaged.”

The original building is worse off than the annex built in 1974 to seat overflow customers. Pfeifer said that structure was flooded in Rita. This time, the older building was so badly damaged that it, in the words of assistant general manager Michael Bouvier, “is falling in on itself.”

Middendorf’s attracted customers from Mississippi to New Orleans with its waterfront address and old-school seafood preparations, particularly the ultra-thin fillets of fried catfish.

“I’d like to rebuild the old building to the flood elevation, to have a new structure there with a state-of-the-art kitchen,” Pfeifer said. “How we get there, I can’t tell you that today.”

In Lafitte, Volion isn’t exactly sure what the future holds for him.

“I got 3 feet inside the restaurant and I got about 3 1/2 feet inside the house where all my freezers are,” he said. “I’m probably the stupidest person I know because I keep opening this place back up after it floods.”

He said he would consider moving to a space on higher ground, but he imagines he’ll first return to serving po-boys, crawfish enchiladas and blackened finfish in the flooded property he’s currently cleaning out. And he’s got a plan if water threatens again.

“Everything I got is on wheels,” he said. “I can just roll it up on a flatbed trailer and bring it to the house. Worst-case scenario, I open a restaurant in my house.”

Information from: The Times-Picayune, www.timespicayune.com

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