Neighborhood pride

Fried Green Tomatoes at The Ruby Slipper

JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPH

When I saw restaurants reviewed in a recent issue of Consumer Reports it made me sad. While I read this magazine to get reliability ratings on, say, a Toyota Yaris, I feel that some things lend themselves better to empirical testing than others. Restaurants, in my opinion, should fall outside the purview of these sorts of rankings. That they don’t, and can be evaluated on a chain basis, only adds to my gratitude that I live in New Orleans.

We are a city of neighborhood restaurants, with street corners anchored by poor boy shops and the like. After a recent trip I was struck again by the degree to which national chains have carpeted other parts of the country in a bleak monochromatic tapestry. Therefore, I chose to look at a crop of small neighborhood joints that have sprung up within the last year or so.

It seems a recurring daydream among chefs to open their own casual diner-style restaurant one day and to get away from the fine dining grind. Dave Gotter is one of these who followed through, opening up Gott Gourmet on Magazine Street in October of 2008. Though casual, the menu is invigorated by lots of fresh flourishes – sauces, marinades and soups are all made from scratch, for example.

Interesting sandwiches include a Cochon de Lait Cuban Panini, made with pulled pork, ham, pickles, gruyere, ancho pepper, honey-dressed coleslaw and chili mayo melded together in a press. If that’s too heavy, a trio of mini Mozzarella Paninis might fit the bill. These are put together with roasted Roma tomatoes, basil and a balsamic reduction, along with a dressing of basil aioli. The Loaded Gumbo takes a kitchen-sink approach, including chicken along with the seafood. In lieu of rice is a scoop of potato salad, a Cajun flourish that I like and wish that was used more around town; there’s something about the creaminess of potato salad that spreads the flavor of the gumbo around a lot more than plain white rice.

Gott also serves up a spicy Chicago Style Hot Dog on a steamed poppy seed bun and dressed with “Chicago” relish (the neon green kind that practically glows in the dark), sport peppers, diced onions, yellow mustard, celery salt and the like. Either double-down to make it a meal or balance it out with some of the Orzo Pasta Salad, which helps cool things off.

Mid-City is the perfect fit for The Ruby Slipper, a charismatic daytime destination. Located in a former corner grocery that was once a magnet for loiterers, the building has been gutted and transformed into an anchor for the community. Across the street is a private garden, which The Ruby Slipper uses to source key ingredients and fresh herbs whenever possible. This kind of local synergy comes through in the food, such as the house-made jam – recently a green tomato and jalapeño number that was sweet, spicy and herbaceous all at the same time, delicious when spread on the fresh-baked biscuits.

The Ruby Slipper specializes in breakfast and brunch. One of the more interesting choices is the Bananas Foster Pain Perdu, essentially French toast made with French bread and smothered with a sauce of rum, brown butter, sugar and bananas sliced into thin coins. Southern classics with a local twist are offered as well, like the BBQ Shrimp and Grits, customized with an Abita Amber and rosemary reduction. If you want an omelet, give the Louisianian a try; it’s made with boiled shrimp, cheddar cheese and fresh thyme.

Supplementing the focus on breakfast and brunch is a nice lunch menu. Starters include a distinctive appetizer of Fried Green Tomatoes, coated with Panko crumbs and dressed with a shrimp Remoulade sauce studded with whole mustard seeds. A special lunch plate of Meatloaf looked awesome as it was sent out to a nearby table. Eye-openers such as Bloody Marys and Brandy Milk Punches are available, along with a selection of beer and wine.
Chef Chris DeBarr amassed a cult following when he worked the burners at The Delachaise, where his well-composed and creative bar menu appeared to be a great fit for the trendy wine bar environs. The partnership fizzled out though, and since then fans of his cooking have been waiting for his return to the local dining scene. He is back now with the Green Goddess, alongside Chef Paul Artigues, formerly of Surrey’s.

Interestingly, the menu at Green Goddess is a departure from the style that defined his cooking at The Delachaise, which typically included luxe ingredients such as foie gras and frites fried in duck fat. The Green Goddess skews toward the vegetarian, but ambitiously so; the vegetarian items here aren’t some kind of concession. There are unusually well thought out: The Golden Beet Ravioli filled with truffled chevre and dressed with Pomegranate molasses and avocado oil, for example.

An interesting non-alcoholic drink menu is another neat feature. A Lychee and Ginger Mint Julep is particularly refreshing, made with lychee puree, ginger syrup and ginger beer, along with muddled mint leaves. A Salty Mango Lassi gets visual kick from the basil seeds.

The Green Goddess Wedge Salad reintroduces the nostalgia of the retro dressing and dials up the accouterments with the addition of boiled shrimp and hearts of palm. The bacon crumbles provide salty pop. The Shrimp Wearing a Grass Skirt features local shrimp covered in slivers of fried phyllo topped with a local version of barbecue sauce, served alongside an interesting slaw made from jicama and young coconut meat.

While the menu is super-friendly for vegetarians (perhaps its strongest feature), meat eaters will find plenty of options. A Bison and Bacon Meatloaf is one of them, rounded out with asparagus wrapped in salty Serrano ham. Louisiana Bangers and Mash is another, built around Marciante’s Duck Sausage, Steen’s Syrup and mashed sweet potatoes.

The menu is ambitious – perhaps overly complicated – and uneven in execution, but it hasn’t been open very long. Expect Chris DeBarr to streamline his offerings to a degree and rein it in as part of the shakedown process.

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