BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
Michael Cassady has caught his second wind.
When Bloom last profiled the venerable Uptown Café five years ago, Cassady sounded like a man with retirement on his mind. He spoke nostalgically of his former days running a tiny restaurant that just served breakfast. He was perfectly happy with the New Orleans-inspired place on the downtown Square he’d run since 1984 and owned by himself since 1999. He had, he said, no thoughts of expanding.
Somebody must have put something in this man’s Sazerac. Today the Uptown Café is abuzz with new energy. Cassady, at 65, “feels 40 again,” rejuvenated, full of verve, albeit in his soft-spoken, low-key way. His son, Lake Hubbard, is running the kitchen (with an assist from another son, Ross Haggerty) and Michael is focused on the big picture, full of ideas and clearly in his element.
What made the difference, one might (and did) ask? Surprisingly, he says, it was the long-resisted purchase of an expensive three-way liquor license, enabling him to sell cocktails and draw a different, livelier crowd. That, along with the expansion into the space next door where he opened a gorgeous bar in 2011. “It really reignited my passion,” he says. “It kicked it up to the place I always wanted it to be. The bar, the wood, the art by Wayne Manns; it expressed what I saw as the Uptown.” He laughs ruefully, “I can’t believe I didn’t just buy one of these [licenses] before.”
The “new” Uptown is not unlike the old. The Cajun vibe is still on the menu and no one is touching the old favorites – the “Number One” (eggs) and “Number Two” (eggs and breakfast meat), both served with Michael’s iconic home fries; the spicy gumbo; the shrimp and grits; the crawfish étouffée: and the red beans and rice (Andouille sausage optional). The Uptown still makes the crabbiest crab cakes around, and the Cajun meatloaf is not going anywhere.
But the blackboard specials are starting to show the influence of the new generation. The crab cakes regularly appear, of course, but there are increasingly other, interesting, less Cajunesque offerings. Recently the board advertised eggplant parmigiana, an absolutely fabulous version, crunchy and light, with perfect marinara sauce (so good it required a repeat visit the following night), pan-seared scallops with mango coconut sauce, and grilled tuna with soy peanut ginger sauce.
Cassady wants to be careful with his brand – New Orleans has become part of who he is, after all – but he also wants his sons to have a chance to stretch their wings. Hubbard says his goal is to explore world foods and new techniques, to take classics from the past and put a new spin on them. On his days off, he and some chef friends operate an underground pop-up restaurant, and Cassady is trying to find more opportunities for him to do his thing at the Uptown. “I have my own vision,” he says, “but I don’t want to work forever, and they can take it to new and greater heights.”
Still, Cassady doesn’t sound like he is going anywhere soon. “I feel like I woke up after a slumber,” he says. That’s a wonderful thing. Pinch him if you see him nod off.