Acadiana's Best New Restaurants
The New Kids in Town
PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVEN HRONEK
Acadiana’s culinary landscape has recently been changing as often as the weather. And that’s a very good thing. It’s easy to claim the area as the core of great Cajun cuisine, but today’s offerings range from fabulous sushi and steaks to international fare, including Indian, Greek and Thai.
The following new restaurants understand that love of good food and its relationship to South Louisiana culture. That’s why they are thriving in what some may consider a crowded market. But then, folks in Acadiana can’t get enough of good eating.
Geaux Fish Restaurant
1129 Audubon Ave.
We’re seeing more examples of the merger of Asian and Cajun foods, and the two go quite well together. Both do well with native seafood, and both use spices liberally and creatively. Owner Tim Luo has brought a very good sushi/hibachi restaurant to Cajun Country. The two food styles not only enhance the flavors of the region but also include another staple, rice. The genius is in the name: It is possible to Geaux Fish in many different cultures. –Staff
400 E. First St.
(Located in the Carmel Inn)
This inspired place taps into the innovation of Nicholls State University’s John Folse Culinary Institute. Meals are created, prepared and served by students of the institute. Guests get a choice of entrees plus a pre-selected soup/appetizer, salad and dessert. There is also a full buffet. Students from the institute do excellent work. This is a great place to get a taste not only of the region but also of the future. –Staff
Last year Lafayette was chosen as Best Food City in the U.S. by the Rand McNally/USA TODAY Best of the Road rally. Naturally, the judges adored the traditional Cajun cuisine but also credited Lafayette for its variety and passion.
Café Cohen: A Premier Espresso bar & Coffee shop
854-A Kaliste Saloom Road
Located inside the Great Harvest Bread Co. of Acadiana, Café Cohen is one of the latest locally owned coffee shops to open in Lafayette. The “café” takes up a small portion of the counter space within Great Harvest, but the coffee exudes giant flavors.
The shop is owned by Lafayette photographer Jason Cohen, who buys his beans from Dallas micro-roaster Cultivar Coffee, a small company that’s so personal they let him crash on their couch when he comes to town to talk business. Fresh beans are important to Cohen, and you can taste the difference in his specialty coffees. All of the coffees are served within 14 days of their roast date, Cohen insists.
There’s a blackboard announcing specials of the days at Café Cohen, from mochas and espressos to specialty teas, and many visitors hoping to nab a sandwich, salad or healthy bread or dessert from Great Harvest are able to pick up a coffee as an accompaniment.
Visit the cafe’s Facebook page, facebook.com/cafecohen, for daily specials.
818 Napoleon Ave.
It’s a romantic combination – Café Josephine on Napoleon Avenue in Sunset. On the outside, not so much. But then, the restaurant was once a meat market in the middle of the town located about 20 minutes north of Lafayette.
Troy and Melissa Bijeaux ran the market, while Troy enjoyed cooking on the side. He raised large amounts of money cooking up plate lunch specials on Fridays for area Little League teams, and it appeared that cooking might be more profitable than the arduous tasks of keeping fresh meat in giant freezers.
Troy suggested to his wife that they turn their market into a restaurant, with him at the helm, and she agreed.
When you enter Café Josephine, which opened last year, you can still spot the space used for the meat market. Now, on the right of the building, is a lovely arrangement of painted tables accented by interesting light fixtures and regional artwork on the walls.
But it’s the food everyone is talking about.
The menu is both eclectic and traditional. Bijeaux cooks up a poor boy with fried shrimp and chocolate-covered bacon, for instance, that’s grabbed everyone’s attention, but he also dishes up shrimp and grits, shrimp Creole and catfish dinners. Lunch involves fresh panini sandwiches such as grilled eggplant panini topped with roasted garlic, tomatoes and pepper jack cheese; soft tacos such as grilled shrimp with cooked spinach, a dash of olive oil and roasted garlic and tomatoes; specialty poor boys such as a smoked pork tenderloin; and several salads. Dinner entrées may include items such as soft-shell crab, seafood platters, crawfish pie and corn-and-crab bisque.
And, as is customary in South Louisiana, there’s also a plate lunch special.
All customers receive a basket of “biscuit bites” as an appetizer, little round biscuits delicious enough to leave you wanting more but not so heavy that they weigh you down. For dessert, there’s a variety of choices, including the bread pudding made from day-old biscuit bites.
Carpe Diem Gelato-Espresso Bar
812 Jefferson St.
Silvia Bertolazzi and Erik Graveson were enjoying an evening walk when Bertolazzi, a native of Italy, had a sudden craving for gelato.
“I thought, ‘If I was at home, I’d be eating gelato,’” Bertolazzi says. “And then I got really homesick.”
She and Graveson began talking about opening a place, never thinking it would become a reality. One day they spotted an empty space on Jefferson Street in the heart of downtown Lafayette, inquired about its occupants – and much to their surprise, found themselves holding the lease.
“Everything just fell into place,” Bertolazzi says. “It was the first building we looked at.”
The next thing she knew, Bertolazzi was creating gelato for the residents of Lafayette. Carpe Diem Gelato-Espresso Bar opened in July 2011.
In a sense, opening a gelato shop is only natural for the Merano, Italy, native. Bertolazzi studied modern languages at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana) and fell in love with Lafayette so decided to stay. She worked for UL France, at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum and for a local vet.
“I went to the dogs,” she says with a smile.
Now she serves up Italian desserts, gourmet coffees prepared exotic ways and a host of specialty teas, in addition to hosting musicians and poetry readings in the space and greeting customers in three languages.
“This is how my life works,” Bertolazzi says. “I just follow my passion.”
Passion is evident everywhere at Carpe Diem, from the dog biscuits and water at the outside tables for canine visitors to the seasonal decorations. For Valentine’s Day Bertolazzi incorporated tea lights swimming in large coffee cups on every table, bunches of red roses and a sidewalk covered in red glitter. For Mardi Gras, there was King Cake gelato. Last summer, Bertolazzi created a butterbeer gelato for the opening of the last Harry Potter film.
On one wall Bertolazzi hired artist Wayne Ditch to re-create the Ponte Milvio, the famous bridge in Rome where lovers commit to each other by placing locks on the bridge’s light posts and throwing the keys in the river. The story is romantic enough, but Bertolazzi added a lamppost to the right of the mural, complete with a chain for Lafayette lovers to attach locks – which they did!
Bertolazzi offers a smile and shrugs. She’s a romantic to the core, and she’s not ashamed to admit it. “I’m Italian,” she says.
In case you’re wondering how desiring gelato makes one capable of opening a store, Bertolazzi once worked in a gelato shop in Italy where she learned the basics. Having her own place of business does present its challenges, but you wouldn’t know it from sampling her fare. Every day she presents 24 flavors, from dark chocolate accented with fresh cherries to cucumber-lemon – a dynamic combination.
The gelato case is actually divided into two offerings: sorbetti, made of water, sugar and fruit (no lactose), and gelato, made with milk and fresh ingredients.
“The biggest difference between ice cream and gelato is we use milk instead of cream,” Bertolazzi explains, adding that gelato must also be made fresh – with a shelf life of three days at the most – and contains less air. In addition, there are no food colorings or additives.
“Here, I learn something new every day,” she says. “I play around a lot.”
Flavors depend on Bertolazzi’s mood and the availability of ingredients. For instance, she procured blood oranges and other citrus from Brad Mayfield and figs from Mark and Mary Hernandez and used them in flavors she created that day. Sometimes people bring in surplus items, such as the 500 pounds of lemons donated by a customer during the winter months.
“We had tons of lemons,” she says.
She grows some ingredients at her Breaux Bridge home and buys local products at Lafayette farmers markets.
Some flavors emerge from Bertolazzi’s imagination, such as the biscoff gelato, made from adding biscoff biscuits to the mix, or the decadent Chocolate Madness, a combination of dark and milk chocolate topped with chocolate shavings and chocolate syrup.
Since flavors change constantly, many customers find out what’s on the menu by watching the Carpe Diem Facebook page, facebook.com/carpediemgelatoespresso.
In addition to the gelato, Bertolazzi serves up specialty coffees derived from a small roasting company in Austin, Texas. Customers choose how they want their coffee prepared and which type of beans they want from a coffee menu. There’s also a wide variety of specialty teas; pastries such as biscotti, scones and cannolis by Amanda Malone; and bagels for the breakfast crowd.
Bertolazzi even extends her passion to the water, which is flavored with cucumbers and lemons.
But then, it’s all about the energy that comes from its creator.
“Gelato is not a luxury in Italy,” Bertolazzi says. “It’s a way of life.”
921 Camellia Blvd.
Now it comes full circle. Chef Donald Link grew up inspired by the cooking of his Acadiana grandparents. He brought his skills to New Orleans where, in a setting that draws national exposure, he distinguished himself at Herbsaint and then his innovative Cochon. Now Link has brought the excitement of the latter to Lafayette. Cochon’s food is both old-school and thoroughly modern, taking many of the traditional pork dishes of rural Louisiana and making them suitable for a fine dining establishment. (Link’s cracklins fit in perfectly in New Orleans’ chic Warehouse District.) Just by opening its doors, Cochon is already an important restaurant – not just for Lafayette but also for the region. –Staff
2865 Ambassador Caffery
Like many new business owners, Danny Nguyen and his brother Chris talked about opening a restaurant. It seemed apropos since their parents were chefs and their family owned a restaurant.
But that wasn’t enough to convince Danny.
“I never really wanted to open a restaurant,” he confesses.
Chris was in the construction business in Lafayette – a town they moved to after marrying sisters from Lafayette – and he found a restaurant space that seemed perfect, one next door to the Frutti Smoothie owned by their in-laws. On May 10, 2011, the two brothers opened Saigon Noodles in the Albertson’s shopping center at the corner of Congress and Ambassador Caffery.
The entire menu is Vietnamese cuisine, something relatively new for Lafayette. The response since opening has been so positive that the two brothers opened a second location March 1 on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge.
“We’re very excited,” Danny says. “We’re doing very well thanks to all the supporters.”
Danny grew up in California, and his brother grew up in Hawaii. He believes his success in the Lafayette market comes from residents enjoying the spicy elements of Vietnamese cooking.
“Most people here, they’re used to Cajun, used to spice,” he says.
The menu is large and varied with different combinations of meat, seafood and types of noodles. The most popular dishes are the ones with vermicelli noodles, he says, accented with items such as grilled shrimp, beef or pork. These appeal to a more general palate.
“I would suggest they start off slow with a vermicelli dish,” he says.
Customers can look for an expanded new menu in April, one that will include some of the Nguyens’ personal favorites, dishes more traditional to Vietnamese cooking.
Saint Street Inn
407 Brook Ave.
New Orleans native Mary Tutwiler loved the fabulous Cajun dishes at Lafayette restaurants but found herself longing for a good salad or a fresh sandwich. A food writer at the Independent weekly in Lafayette, she discussed her concerns with fellow reporter Nathan Stubbs.
At the same time the town’s farmers markets were blossoming, making fresh produce and organic products more available.
“It was expanding consciousness on my part,” Tutwiler explains. “At the same time, Nathan tagged along with me to the restaurants, and we talked about what we wished we could eat. This conversation Nate and I started five years ago never ended.”
The two searched for a building, one within a neighborhood that offered a sense of place and an outdoor arena in addition to indoor dining, she says. When an empty restaurant came available in the Saint Streets neighborhood, near the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and downtown, Tutwiler and Stubbs quit their writing gigs and became restaurateurs. The Saint Street Inn opened in mid-August of 2011.
“We just closed our eyes and jumped off a cliff,” Tutwiler says.
The Saint Street Inn’s focus is farm-to-table, serving up an ever-changing menu of fresh sandwiches, salads, pizza, burgers, poor boys and entrées – all created with fresh produce, meats and regional products. Tutwiler scours the local farmers markets for vegetables and fruit, purchases meats from a Eunice slaughterhouse and grows herbs alongside the restaurant. On occasion, friends and neighbors bring in surplus fruits and vegetables.
“We’re not farm-to-table,” she says with a laugh. “We’re backyard-to-table.”
Because the menu relies on fresh and local ingredients, Tutwiler and Stubbs must be extremely flexible. A sudden freeze can deplete strawberries or citrus from the farmers market, for instance. Many times they must create a menu from ingredients, instead of the usual other way around.
“That’s the way cooking was up until post-World War II and refrigeration,” Tutwiler explains.
A good example is the restaurant’s Raw Deal Salad, which changes with the seasons. During winter months, the Raw Deal consists of cabbage, avocado, sprouts, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms and cauliflower. In the summer, it shifts to summer greens, with inclusions of items such as watermelon. The Caprese Salad, which usually features fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, sprouts and seasonal greens, must adjust in the winter months to the lack of basil. Tutwiler replaces the basil pesto with a parsley-pecan combination during that time.
“What we’re finding is farm-to-table is tough,” she says. “You’re dependent on what’s available. You really have to move on your feet. It keeps you creative.”
Items such as seafood follow a similar pattern, with oysters and shrimp on the menu for winter and crawfish arriving in spring.
Tutwiler grew up in a vibrant cooking household in uptown New Orleans, so the idea of seasonal foods is nothing new.
“It’s an integral part of the society,” she says.
Beef used at the restaurant comes from a Eunice slaughterhouse, as does the smoked sausage, and she sometimes purchases andouille from Johnson’s Boucanière in Lafayette and tasso from Best Stop in Scott.
“All of our beef is local, grown on the prairie,” Tutwiler says. “We really like it. It’s fresh and clean. A lot of the pork comes from there, too. Why would you buy kielbasa, which has to be shipped in, when you can buy the best smoked sausage in the world?”
The restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch Tuesday through Saturday and for dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. On special occasions, such as Mardi Gras and record- and beer-release parties, the hours are extended. Because they now have an “arbor stage” at the end of an alley next to the building, they plan on a music series this spring.
“We’ll irregularly have bands,” Tutwiler says with a smile.
Owning and operating a restaurant has its challenges, Tutwiler concludes, but she loves nurturing her young staff and developing new dishes. Stubbs adds balance as her business partner, being more experienced with the “short-order rhythm” while she’s more comfortable with a slower paced dinner. Tutwiler remains cautious while Stubbs is “widely creative and pretty fearless.”
“Together, we play to each other’s strengths,” she says.
508 Hawkeye Ave.
Lake Arthur, 337/774-1504
As an entrepreneurial venture, Regatta is described by Acadiana Profile’s Trent Angers as “the biggest thing to happen in Jeff Davis Parish since Hurricane Rita in 2005.” The creation of owners Greg and Tressa Trahan, the lakeside restaurant features seafood, steaks, pasta and Cajun mainstays all with a self-described mission of remembering the good times on the lake. Good food, good times – and a view that isn’t bad either. The winds are blowing right for this Regatta. –Staff
Bistro121 Dr. Michael Debakey Drive
Formerly known as Louis DeAngelo’s, the new name is a little more chic, though owners Ben Herrera and Richie Gregory are still in charge. Pizza is the house specialty, but there is also a good variety of fish dishes, soups and specials as befits a bistro, especially one that carries the name “Artisan.”–Staff
Le Peep of Lake Charles
3800 Ryan St.
This Lake Charles rendition of a café chain has brought what claims to be the “world’s greatest breakfast” to Ryan Street. The place promises great food and warm smiles and is usually able to deliver on both. –Staff
409-A W. Prien Lake Road
With locations in Lafayette and throughout Acadiana, Zeus has now also taken a stand in Lake Charles, where it can serve the casino-going crowd and others along heavily traveled Prien Lake Road. The emphasis is on Greek and Lebanese food served either off a full dining menu or an express menu. Lake Charles has always been a crossroad of cultures. Zeus adds more flavor to the mix. –Staff
Note: Lafayette section and introduction by Cheré Coen. Other sections by Acadiana Profile staff.