Sep 9, 201012:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
The salumi at Domenica should not be missed.
Photo courtesy of Robert Peyton
When I heard that John Besh was opening an Italian restaurant in the Roosevelt Hotel, which was then still undergoing extensive renovations, my expectations were high. Besh is a canny restaurateur, and his flagship, August, is among my favorite places to eat in New Orleans. I thought that if he could bring the level of precision and attention to detail displayed at August to a fine-dining Italian restaurant, it would be a huge success.
Delays in the renovation of the hotel and in the build-out of the restaurant meant that Domenica didn’t open as early as anticipated. But Besh and executive chef Alon Shaya were not sitting on their hands. Shaya spent a number of months in Italy, learning the cooking of various regions and the Italian art of charcuterie, or salumifici. I had a chance to correspond with him while he was there and to speak with him when he came back, and both times his passion for the food was obvious.
The restaurant has a single large dining room whose décor is the only major complaint I’ve heard from people who’ve eaten there. It doesn’t offend me, but it strikes some folks as a bit too modern. The room has high ceilings, and the main dining area is bounded by four massive columns. There is a long marble bar that’s raised above the dining area and a few tables just in front of it. The restaurant can be loud when it’s full, and it’s frequently full.
Service is good though casual. When things are very busy, you can wait a bit to catch your server’s attention, but that’s to be expected given the size of the restaurant and its laid-back nature. I will, as always, defer to my friend Tim McNally with regard to the wine list, but I haven’t had a problem finding a moderately priced, drinkable bottle when I’ve tried.
The menus at Domenica are printed on paper place mats, another nod to the relaxed attitude of the restaurant. They are divided into a number of sections: pizze, salumi & formaggi, antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dolci.
The pizzas at Domenica are outstanding. When the restaurant first opened, the crusts tended to be too thin, but they’ve fixed that problem. The crust is now equal to the toppings, which include the basic Margherita, with tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella; the Cotechino, with pork sausage, scallions and tomatoes; the Enzo, with anchovies, tomatoes, garlic and mortadella; and the Gorgonzola, which combines that rich blue cheese with figs, pecans, and speck, a cured ham similar to prosciutto. The cheese and figs are an obvious pairing, though perhaps not on a pizza, and with the crunch of the pecans and the saltiness of the prosciutto, it’s a fantastic dish.
The salumi and cheese selections are a must-have, if only for the pillow-like soft squares of fried bread that come with each order. In addition to prosciutto, coppa, soppressata and a house-made salami gentile, don’t pass on the lardo. Yes, it’s cured fat; it’s delicious. And you can cut the richness with some of the pickles, olives and mostarda served with the plate.
Antipasti serve as appetizers on Domenica’s menu. Standouts include a local watermelon salad with goat cheese, basil and balsamic vinegar; octopus carpaccio, served with thinly sliced fennel and citrus; and wood-roasted sardines, served in a gratin dish with olives and tomatoes and topped with bread crumbs. The octopus is a dish I have a hard time passing up; it’s tender, thinly sliced pieces of octopus spread in a circular pattern on the plate with a salad of shaved fennel and citrus arranged on top. The combination is unbelievably delicious, though on my last visit, the portions were a bit on the small side for the price.
“Primi” translates as “pasta” on Domenica’s menu, and both the antipasti and the primi are available in full- or half-size portions. The choices run the gamut from minimalist (the spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and Parmigiano) to extravagant (risotto with truffles and pancetta croutons). In between, there are stracci (torn pasta) with an oxtail ragu and fried chicken livers; goat cheese tortelloni with sweet peas, guanciale and tomatoes; and tagliatelle with a rabbit ragu and porcini mushrooms. Sometimes simple is best, and the spaghetti is a perfect example of that maxim. It’s a simple dish: pasta, cheese, olive oil and garlic. The sum of those components is greater than the parts, at least when it’s done properly, and at Domenica, it’s done properly.
Secondi, or main courses, are divided into fish and meat. The whole grilled redfish with lemon, herbs and bread crumbs is a substantial and eye-catching dish on the pesce side of things, and the fritto misto, which is the only entree that can be ordered in half- or full-size portions, features shrimp, calamari, crab and vegetables.
The braciole di capretto is tender slow-roasted goat with wild mushrooms; it’s rich and unctuous. Goat is a pretty mild meat, a lot like veal, which shows up on the menu panéed and served with lemon and arugula. There’s a good steak on the menu, as well, a grilled ribeye served with asparagus and porcini butter.
Contorni are side dishes, essentially, and they shouldn’t be overlooked. If you split a secondi with someone, a side of sweet peas with butter and prosciutto, rosemary-roasted potatoes or fennel baked with Parmigiano and cream is a great way to fill things out.
I am not, generally speaking, a dessert man. I will not tell you what kind of man I am, but I will tell you that the frittole di ciliegia on the menu at the moment are freaking awesome. I like fried things a lot, but after the meal I had the other night, I was so full that dessert seemed impossible. But the kids in the kitchen at Domenica have a way with the fryer that makes these fritters pretty much irresistible once you’ve tasted them. There are other desserts on the menu, and some of them are very good; the gianduja budino, for example, a chocolate-and-hazelnut pudding with candied hazelnuts, is excellent. The panna cotta, served with blackberries and biscotti, is a very good rendition of the dish. But I’m telling you, the fritters are killer.
So I like Domenica, just in case that wasn’t obvious. I also like Alon Shaya. He’s a swell guy, one of the more personable chefs I’ve met in New Orleans. That wouldn’t matter to me if he didn’t also turn out some of the best Italian food to be found in these parts. So it’s convenient for me that such a nice guy is also such a talented chef. Hugs all around, says I.
Starting yesterday, Sept. 8, and going through Sunday, Sept. 12, Domenica is honoring Shaya’s Jewish heritage for Rosh Hashanah with a four-course menu that starts with house-baked challah served with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt, an antipasti of fried eggplant Casalinga with spicy roasted pepper and a parsley salad; matzo ball minestrone; and slow-roasted brisket “della nonna” with pine nuts, figs and sweet potatoes. The meal finishes with a warm honey cake with apples and caramel. The meal costs $45 per person, and there’s a specialty cocktail featuring apples and honey for an additional $8.
If you are interested in dining at Domenica for this or any other meal, you can contact them by phone at 648-6020. They are open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant is located at 123 Baronne Street in the Roosevelt Hotel.