While working on my recent post about baked oysters New Orleans style, I got to thinking about all of the food I have enjoyed focused on oysters: oysters on the half-shell, oysters Rockefeller, oyster po’boys, etc., etc. I also got to thinking about all of the good meals I have enjoyed in New Orleans.
One outstanding oyster dish from New Orleans immediately came to mind: Potage Le Ruth, invented by Chef Warren Leruth and served at his fabled Le Ruth’s Restaurant on the West Bank in Gretna. Before he opened his restaurant, Leruth had gained recognition as a baker, chef and food innovator. He had been personal chef to General Clark when he was in the army in Korea, and he helped to develop the famous Duncan Hines cake mixes at Proctor & Gamble. So it was not surprising when he decided to open his own place in his home town.
New Orleans is one of those cities where everyone wants the latest gossip about new restaurants and hot places to go. When Le Ruth’s opened in 1966, it caught everyone’s attention with its creative cuisine. Food critics at the time said that Leruth rescued New Orleans dining from itself because all of the old-line restaurants had started to rest on their reputations and the food had become more or less the same. Le Ruth’s changed all of that and soon gained the reputation as being undoubtedly the best restaurant in the city. That was evidenced by the difficulty in snagging a reservation.
It was not the easiest place to get to. You could use the bridge over the Mississippi River, but it was far easier to ride the Gretna ferry from the foot of Canal Street and then catch a cab to the restaurant.
I remember clearly the first time I ever ate at Le Ruth’s. A group of colleagues and I were attending a business meeting in downtown New Orleans. We had made our reservations well in advance, and everyone was looking forward to the experience. We found our way to the restaurant, took our seats at the table and, ordered wine. One of the group stuck two of the corks from the wine bottles in his nostrils when they were offered to him. He announced that the wine was perfect. We all laughed, but two distinguished ladies at the next table raised their eyebrows. I don’t exactly recall, but I believe that at least the wine taster had spent a sizeable part of the afternoon on Bourbon Street.
It is a good thing we didn’t get tossed out. Le Ruth had the reputation for responding to critical letters with scathing rebukes from an “anonymous” diner. For folks who gave real offense, he would assign four waiters to the corners of the tablecloth of the miscreant. At a signal, they would lift the cloth to form a sack of food, dinnerware, and wine while Leruth would announce that he “had picked up the check” and summarily declare, “Get out of my restaurant!” I am certain that Warren Leruth would know how to handle the current generation of whiners on Yelp.
Le Ruth’s served many delicious and unique dishes, but perhaps the most famous was Potage Le Ruth. Unfortunately, to my knowledge there is no extant authentic recipe. Leruth said that he had the original locked up in a vault. Nevertheless, imitations – none as good – soon showed up on the menus of most of the other high-end restaurants in New Orleans. Then recipes for oyster and artichoke soup began to appear in local newspapers. Many of the knock-offs used cream, but Leruth bragged that his recipe contained no cream. The soup is a sort of rich velouté based on a blond roux, so you really shouldn’t need cream.
Surprisingly, some food writers say that Leruth used canned artichokes. My version does, too, although respected New Orleans chefs insist that only fresh artichokes, properly cooked and prepared, will do. If you want to use fresh artichokes, probably four medium are about right. My version is adapted from a recipe that appeared in one of the Shreveport newspapers of the time. Be advised that it is not the real thing. I have taken the additional liberty of adding some whole oysters in the style of an oyster stew. Even though it lacks authenticity, I think you will find it a most delicious soup.
Oyster and Artichoke Soup
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½ medium onion, chopped finely
- 1 rib celery, chopped finely
- 1 small carrot, peeled and chopped finely
- 14 ounce can artichoke hearts, quartered
- 3 cups hot fish stock
- ¼ teaspoon ground thyme
- 1/8 teaspoon ground bay
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 pint oysters
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar or lemon juice (about)
- 1 pinch sugar (about)
- ¼ cup madeira
- Melt butter in the bottom of a heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and carrots and sauté until the onions are translucent and the other vegetables have wilted. Do not brown.
- Add the flour and continue cook over medium heat and stirring frequently until the flour is completely incorporated and the raw taste has disappeared, about 2 minutes.
- Drain the artichokes and add to the sautéed mixture.
- Stir in the hot stock, thyme, bay, cayenne, salt and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer partly covered for 45 minutes.
- Strain the oysters in a fine-mesh strainer to remove any bits of shell and sand, saving the liquid. Set aside about half the oysters to be stewed later, and chop the remainder. Add the chopped oysters to the oyster liquor and then stir into the simmering soup, cooking for another 10 minutes below the boil
- With an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth. Correct seasoning with vinegar and sugar. Add the madeira. If you wish, at this point you may strain the soup through a chinois for an especially smooth soup, or you can omit that step.
- Return the soup to medium-low heat and stir in the remaining oysters, cooking until they are firm and the edges are curled.
- Serve immediately or cool to serve later. Then, reheat to the boiling point and serve immediately. Grilled farm-style bread makes a good accompaniment.