Charboneau tweaks menu at Carriage House Restaurant

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; &uot;Easy does it,&uot; a savvy Regina Charboneau must have thought as she set out to do what many might have thought impossible.

Her task? Keep the traditional, best-loved Carriage House Restaurant foods on the menu but update with new, gourmet Southern dishes.

&uot;Even my mother said to me, ‘You’re not going to change the tomato aspic, are you?’&uot; Charboneau said, sitting in the stylish lobby of the restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall in Natchez. &uot;Some of those things go back to 1946.&uot;

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Indeed, Charboneau said she turns her back and walks right by when she sees cooks preparing the fried chicken, tomato aspic, frozen fruit salad and chocolate tarts, all wildly popular for decades with Carriage House regulars and tourists. &uot;I don’t even look. I have not changed or touched those,&uot; she said.

With seven skilled cooks to work with, an accomplished director with years of experience and an excellent staff, Charboneau said, the transition has been joyful. &uot;I can’t tell you how much fun it is to be working with these people,&uot; she said. &uot;And I think they’re excited and pleased.&uot;

Like all businesses, restaurants must change with the times, Charboneau said. &uot;People have become more sophisticated about food. You have people who want the Southern experience of dining but want it to be gourmet.&uot;

Now the menu known for its Southern fried chicken and baked ham also includes fried oyster salad, for example.

&uot;And we’re getting away from the iceberg lettuce in the salad and putting a few more greens on the plate with a fried green tomato as garnish,&uot; she said. &uot;And we have a mustard vinaigrette that’s our new house salad dressing now.&uot;

On the menu along with the old favorite chocolate tart is the new sweet potato crisp with praline sauce. Beef tenderloin now might vie with fried chicken for some diners’ tastes at Sunday lunch.

Dot Clark, director at the Carriage House for the past 22 years, said the changes have been good for the restaurant. &uot;People on Sundays especially seem to like the brisket, the tenderloin and the salads,&uot; she said.

Charboneau is &uot;a joy to work with,&uot; Clark said, adding that the kitchen staff has worked especially hard to make the new menus successful.

For Charboneau, most important is using fresh ingredients. &uot;Anything made from scratch, I kept; anything made from a can, I have tried to change and update.&uot;

Excitement among the cooks about learning new foods and new methods has been rewarding, she said. &uot;There are some who have been here 25-plus years, but there has been zero resistance. They have been wonderful.&uot;

Charboneau introduces new ideas and then implements them with the cooks. &uot;I work with them three or four times and then let them go,&uot; she said. &uot;We keep moving on to other things.&uot;

Hired by the Pilgrimage Garden Club’s Board of Directors, Charboneau has more than the Carriage House in her charge. &uot;I’m general manager of Stanton Hall, Longwood and the Carriage House,&uot; she said. &uot;How easy is this job, to be handed three of the best properties in Natchez to see what you can do?&uot;

The Pilgrimage Garden Club owns the three properties, all open to the public and also used for garden club functions. Charboneau is working to increase the use of the three places both for garden club members and the public.

Board member Ruth Ellen Calhoun said she is excited about the energy and ideas Charboneau is bringing to the three places.

&uot;Regina is quite a talent, very imaginative,&uot; Calhoun said. &uot;Her wedding menus look wonderful, and I think her idea of using all three properties is going to get a terrific response.&uot;

Charboneau has organized new packages both for tours and for weddings that involve the Carriage House, Stanton Hall and Longwood.

For those who rent Stanton Hall for a wedding reception, the option to rent Longwood for the rehearsal party will be part of the package.

&uot;And I’ve come up with a Natchez Picnic Package for $28 that includes a tour of Stanton Hall, picking up a box lunch at the Carriage House and taking it to Longwood for a picnic and then a tour of Longwood,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s a perfect little tour. It cuts down lunch time and leaves time for other house tours.&uot;

She has begun planning events for the year around, including a New Year’s Eve party that she is sure will be a sell-out. &uot;We’re taking 160 reservations and we already have 56,&uot; she said. &uot;We’ll have champagne and caviar in Stanton Hall and then a seated dinner and dancing in the Carriage House.&uot;

For the entire Christmas season, in fact, she has come up with a way to help businesses have elegant Christmas parties with less expense, she said.

&uot;I have come up with a lot of innovative ideas for reasonably priced Christmas parties in the Queens Room and Carriage House,&uot; she said. &uot;We have waived all rental fees for the month of December at the Carriage House, which helps companies save on holiday parties. And there are special packages that are 15 percent less from 4 to 6 o’clock in the afternoon.&uot;

With all her plans and ideas, Charboneau also makes time for other interests. Her job with the garden club properties is part time, 25 hours a week, she said. &uot;I still have time for my family and my bed and breakfast,&uot; she said. She and husband, Douglas, have two sons, 10 and 13, and operate their home, Twin Oaks, as a bed-and-breakfast inn. &uot;And I still have Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco.&uot;

A Natchez native and an experienced, award-winning restaurateur, Charboneau is best known for her San Francisco restaurant, Regina’s at the Regis, located in the heart of the city’s

theater district. From 1985 to 1997, Regina’s was a favorite late night spot for theater-goers as well as celebrities.

In 1995 Charboneau created and opened the first Biscuits & Blues nightclub in San Francisco, which was awarded a W.C. Handy award in 1999 as the Best Blues Club in America.

In 1998, she moved with her family to Minneapolis and joined the Nicollet Island Inn on the Mississippi River, where her menu centered on the best regional ingredients of Minnesota’s four seasons.

In 1999, she lived in New York City, working to complete &uot;A Collection of Seasonal Menus and Recipes,&uot; released in September 2000 and now sold out.

She and her family returned to her hometown of Natchez in 2000.