The King of Madison's Carnival
John Roussos’ New Orleans Take Out was one of the city’s first Creole restaurants, though it’s been under the radar since it opened in 1985. But this north side treasure was once frequented by visiting musical acts like Wynton Marsalis and Garbage, and Roussos delights in recounting with zeal these stories and more—as well as sharing his love of Creole food with Madison.
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One of my first stops in New Orleans, per Roussos’ request, is Cassamento’s, an uptown dive joint known for oysters and po’boys. I immediately think of NOTO when I walk in. It’s one of those places where time stands still—an intentional effort to leave a good thing alone. Italian tiled floors, subway-tiled walls, sparse décor save for some Mardi Gras beads hanging here and there. Waitresses sport Saints jerseys. Two guys shuck oysters all day at a counter smack-dab in the middle of the dining room. Soda comes in glass bottles. And, boy, do they have a good fish fry. Cash only, of course.
New Orleans Take Out is similar in that it’s unremarkable when you come across it. It’s even less so when you enter, and Roussos’ kitchen was designed with a semi-open concept as well. The walls are pale pink with a ’90s-inspired wallpaper border. Framed posters of jazz festivals and famous jazz singers line the walls, though I never see one dated later than 2004, the year he visited New Orleans last.
Here, as in New Orleans, the gumbo is divine, and the red beans, delicious in their simplicity, are perfectly seasoned. The fried cod po’boy is dressed with pickles, mayo and a moist cod filet. But the real winners here are Deb’s barbecued shrimp—five plump broiled shrimp served in an aromatic cream sauce, paired with white or dirty rice—as well as the sweet potato pecan pie. The food stands in stark contrast to its surroundings, which of course, Roussos delights in.
“I love it this way here—I’m not obsessed with how it looks here, I’m obsessed with food. And if you go to New Orleans, you’re going to see that, too.” He points to a crumbling corner of the wall for evidence.
Nighttime in New Orleans is beautiful and mysterious. So many of the buildings have historic plaques, street names are heavy with references to the past (Royal, Bourbon, Frenchmen) and gas lamps still burn brightly outside many an edifice. Inside, the ambience at the Bon-Ton Café on Magazine Street, located in the historic Natchez Building, complements its old-world surroundings—red checkered tablecloths, iron chandeliers and an intoxicating joie de vivre. The food does not disappoint. The crabmeat au gratin and the red fish bon ton are so good, it’s obvious why Roussos sent me here. When I report back that Bon-Ton is just as good as he said it was, his brown eyes sparkle and you can tell he’s pleased, because that’s what he aims to do at NOTO, too.
“We’re like a time capsule of New Orleans food—we haven’t changed in the last thirty years like their food did,” he notes emphatically. “It’s tough for me to get people to ‘get’ what I’m doing, like food writers—you can’t write about what you don’t know. It’s like one day they’re
writing obituaries, the next day they’re writing about food.” Even if those food writers don’t “get” NOTO’s food, Roussos doesn’t seem to mind because for him, food is like art, subject to interpretation. With every ingredient and every stir, he’s painting his own masterpiece, and like an artist, he wants to share his creativity and passion. If it feels and tastes like New Orleans, the artist’s work is done.
Roussos looks out the window of NOTO and across the street at some old warehouses and bare lots flanked by chain-link fencing. “You know, some people say my place even reminds them of New Orleans, near the levies,” he says, thoughtfully. And just being there with Roussos now on the cusp of retirement, at sixty years old, I see a man who’s wistful for the past, but very much loves the present—his wife and two grown daughters occupying much of his time. He’s outgrown his wilder younger years. “I used to yell and curse at employees when I started out. Back then you would have to be here a while before I’d even talk to you. I like to get reactions from people. But I’ve mellowed with age.”
Roussos is part philosopher, part smart-ass much of the time. And the time has come, he thinks, to step down, and he’s already agreed to sell NOTO to his employee of ten years, Jed Kurer, who does all of the cooking now anyway. Meanwhile Roussos is focusing his energy on selling his products wholesale—pralines, jambalaya, red beans and rice and more. He shows me a potential label for the pralines, and it’s gorgeous.
He’s finally ready to let go.
“When I opened the restaurant I felt a sense of powerlessness—then the customers had the control. They had the power. The restaurant then had a personality of its own—it wasn’t about me anymore, and it won’t be about Jed, either.”
And now seeing the way he talks about the city that inspired him, he’s let go of that place, too, but it’ll always be in his memories, on the walls of NOTO and, of course, in the food. Ahhh, the food.
Plus, he admits with a devilish grin: “If I had stayed any longer in that city it would've eaten me alive."
Shayna Miller is associate and style editor of Madison Magazine.
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