May 3, 201206:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
Carnivorous on Carrollton
Chef Isaac Toups spent a decade at Restaurant Delmonico, starting as a fry cook and working his way up to executive sous chef. It was as far as he was going to get there, unless Spencer Minch decided to leave, and there was no indication that was going to happen. He and his wife Amanda had discussed opening their own restaurant, and had set a goal of two years for doing so. When he got an offer to take the position of executive chef at Cuvée, he accepted, but that lasted only around six months.
The Toups met their two-year goal with two weeks to spare when they opened Toups' Meatery at 845 N. Carrollton St. on April 17 of this year. The restaurant is in the space formerly occupied by the Mediterranean Café, though a thorough renovation has changed the place considerably. There's a lot of meat on the menu at Toups', which one would expect from the name, but there's a good bit more to the place than cooked flesh.
Like a lot of other restaurants in the last few years, Toups' cures meat in-house and makes its own sausages, rillettes, and other charcuterie. The in-house ethic informs the restaurant generally; they also produce a wide variety of pickles, their own potato chips and, on a recent lunch there, I had a white bean purée flavored with truffle oil and lemon that defied my expectations. More on that later.
Isaac's wife Amanda Toups told me that their goal was to create a space in which you feel like you're dining with the Toups family in his native Rayne, Louisiana. That's why a lot of the dishes are designed to share. She told me she and Isaac wanted the restaurant to be the kind of place where “you can eat foie gras in your shorts.” It's certainly got that kind of atmosphere – this is serious food, and there's foie gras on the menu, but the dining room and service are definitely comfortable.
That service is overseen by Larry Nguyen, whom New Orleans Magazine honored as Maître d’ of the Year in 2010. He was at the nearby Café Minh at the time, so it couldn't have been that difficult a transition, at least in terms of geography. The wait staff at any restaurant with such a diverse and constantly changing menu has to be on their toes, and the staff at Toups' seems up to the task. If a diner does have a question, Amanda Toups is close at hand; she's been a presence in the relatively small dining area every time I've dined.
The meatery board is the way to go if you're dining with a friend. It's big enough to split between at least four people, though in that case I'd also probably order the vegetable board. Both have a lot to offer, with the obvious difference that the restaurant can't call the meatery board vegan. (I'm not 100% sure they veggie board is vegan either, but apart from a hint of cheese in two outstanding chiles rellenos made with fresh piquillo peppers, I don't think there was anything from the animal world involved. House-made chips, spiced pickled beets, curried cauliflower and squash pickles, sweet cucumber pickles, an assortment of brined olives that are seasoned in the kitchen, the aforementioned white bean purée and a skewer of grilled red onion, grape tomato, zucchini, and squash rounded out the board. The bean purée was particularly noteworthy. I hate truffle oil, but sometimes (rarely) I find something incorporating the artificially-flavored oil that actually works. While it wasn't my favorite thing on the vegetable board (that's a tie between the rellenos and the beets), the lemon in the purée hit a second after the truffle oil registered. I went from “oh shit, truffle oil,” to “huh?” followed rapidly by a second dip of toast into the ramekin. I imagine that, if truffle oil is your thing, you'll like it even more than I did.
The meatery board changes pretty regularly, but the last time I dined there it included meaty cracklins, chunks of candied pork belly, a couple of different types of thinly sliced cured meat, two potted meats (including rabbit rillettes that were very good) and a couple of different sausages. The board also included two mustards and a couple of different versions of the pickles that come with the vegetable board. I wasn't all that hungry when I started eating it, but there wasn't much left but the board itself when I finished. Well, that and the knife. I may have eaten the fork, but that's a problem peculiar to me, I think.
The entrees I've tried have been equally good. The lamb neck is served as a massive, bone-in piece over a black-eyed pea ragout, topped with a sweet-crisp minted chow chow. The peas come off as something of an afterthought under the massive piece of bone-in meat, and there's not a great deal of mint in the chow chow, but neither of those quibbles matter when you dig into the lamb. When you cook meat on the bone, or at least when you do it properly, it can be the most succulent thing you'll ever put in your mouth. I could have picked the lamb at Toups' off the bones with a spoon. It benefitted from the chow chow, because it needed some acid to balance the richness of the meat.
The roasted half-duck on the menu is similarly tender. It comes with a satsuma-duck jus and thyme-roasted turnips, and I really need to ask Toups how he manages to keep the meat on both the breast and the leg/thigh so tender. I know they were cooked together, because the duck is served in one piece, skin-on. The breast meat is cooked to the point that there's no pink left at all, which you would think would mean its dried out. It's not. To top it off, almost all of the fat under the skin has been rendered. The skin, incidentally, is the color of the darkest roux you've ever seen, and delicious eaten with the meat or by itself. The turnips, unlike the black-eyed peas, were much more than a garnish. They've got a natural sweetness and a little bit of bite that, again, balances the duck.
Amanda told me that their initial concept for the restaurant was rustic ingredients, finished beautifully. I think they're pulling it off, and that's after being open for only a month. I would love to tell you something about the desserts, but there are limits to which I will go to report on restaurants to you people, and I have yet to leave Toups' Meatery with enough room for a sweet finish. Sue me. (Do not sue me.)
Toups' Meatery is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and again for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. On Friday and Saturday they stick around until 10. You can check the menu out at their website, and you can call them at (504) 252-4999 if that's your preference.
One final thing. I know the name “Meatery” is a bit odd – maybe even a little twee. Kids, trust me, this place is for real.