Best of Dining
Best of 2010 Chefs, Restaurants, Front of the House, Behind the Bar, Ethnic and More
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One thing we know about our readers: Y’all sure like to eat. We know that not just from surveys but also from newsstand sales. Last year’s revamped Best of Dining issue was the year’s top-selling edition in a year in which issues overall sold well. Since we like to eat, too, we have approached this edition with relish, offering our choices of the year’s best in a range of areas. n A committee consisting of our editors and our dining and spirits writers made the selections. For our purposes, the “year” encompassed the period from October 2009, when the selections were made for last year’s issue, to the present. n We continue our Honor Roll category in which we spotlight a long-established restaurant. This year’s choice has made the adventure of crossing the Huey P. Long Bridge worth the trip. n We know that the competition is keen and in every category there are worthy contenders, yet we feel good about this year’s choices. They should be aware however, that there are many aspiring restaurateurs out there with the talent and drive to become even better than the bests.
CHEF OF THE YEAR
Susan Spicer is no stranger to publicity. One of our best-known chefs, she’s been an integral part of New Orleans dining since her landmark restaurant Bayona burst onto the scene more than 20 years ago. She has also entered the zeitgeist as a basis for the character Janette Desautel on the HBO series “Treme” (“very loosely based,” she’s quick to add) and served as a restaurant consultant for the show. Yet what distinguishes her from our other famous chefs is that her style is global rather than regional. You can’t pigeonhole her as Cajun, Creole or Southern, although threads from these do contribute to her overall tapestry. Perusing her menus, one is struck more by the Asian, Latin and Mediterranean influences. Despite such worldly inspirations, she remains closely identified with New Orleans cooking. In this way she adds to our culinary culture, broadening and enriching it while helping to keep it from being typecast. Active on the board of the Gulf Restoration Network and Share Our Strength, over the summer she opened her newest restaurant Mondo in Lakeview and is New Orleans Magazine’s Chef of the Year.
With Mondo, Susan put her stamp on a neighborhood whose long restoration is now in full bloom. Upon opening, it sent a message that this stretch of Harrison Avenue wasn’t just back in business, but thriving. “I live in the area, and my neighborhood is like a little village, but the makeup has shifted since the storm,” she says. “When I first moved here before [Hurricane] Katrina, there were a lot of older people, but now there are a lot more families and young professionals – a nice mix.”
Drawing on the new demographics and celeb-chef cachet, Mondo boomed off to a strong start. Envisioned as a more casual destination than Bayona but with equally ambitious food, Spicer shrewdly supplemented the adult fare with a kids’ menu, along with crowd-pleasing favorites like wood-fired pizzas. Brunch service was added early on and lunch started in mid-October. “We’re trying to build more business; for example, to have people come out to watch the Saints games in the bar for brunch. Drink specials are a part of that.”
Mondo’s menu casts a wide net. The Pork and Shrimp Meatballs on Lemongrass Skewers quickly became a signature item. “A lot of our inspiration is ingredient-driven,” Spicer says. “And a lot of it comes from just talking to my chef Cindy Crosbie and sous chef Paul Chell. Both are like me – they’re always reading and thinking and seeing what other people are doing. We’re all interested in cuisine from around the world. It’s similar to what I do with my crew at Bayona – inspiration comes out of conversations and collaborations.”
Over the past 20 years, Bayona’s kitchen has turned out a remarkable collection of alumni who have gone on to be household names in their own right. Donald Link of Herbsaint and Cochon fame is one; John Harris of Lilette is another. “I love how so many have stayed on here in New Orleans,” Spicer says. And despite being more than 20 years old, Bayona still maintains its reputation for innovation. (Asked if she can believe it has been that long, the answer is a quick, flat and unequivocal “yes.”) “My goal now is to look forward to the next 20 years,” Spicer says.
“I want to do new things. I’ve spent 20 years teaching people, and now I’m at the point where I’m hiring people that bring in their own experience and ideas. We’ve got our signature items of course, but I want to freshen those up as well. Technique-wise, I’m not really trying to do anything crazy but I’m always ready to learn new stuff.”
– Jay Forman
Bayona, 430 Dauphine St., 525-4455, bayona.com; Mondo, 900 Harrison Ave., 224-2633, mondoneworleans.com
BEST NEW (to new orleans) CHEF OF THE YEAR
Before Le Foret opened in late 2009, it released a menu that was as ambitious as anything seen in New Orleans in a decade. The restaurant’s owners also issued a press release identifying James Corwell as the restaurant’s chef, touting his experience as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa, Calif. The release mentioned that Corwell is a Certified Master Chef.
To understand how impressive that certification is, you need to know what it takes to achieve it. Once a year, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., administers a week-long test to established professional chefs, measuring the participants’ skills, knowledge, creativity and endurance. Much of the cooking involves recipes taken from the classic French repertoire, dishes made culinary canon by Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier that are very rarely seen in modern restaurants.
In reading an account of the test written by author Michael Ruhlman in his book The Soul of a Chef, I was left with the impression that the test wasn’t the best measure of a modern chef; that there was too great an emphasis on a cuisine with hidebound rules that stifle creativity. The fact that Corwell was the only Certified Master Chef in Louisiana didn’t impress me as it should have.
It took one meal at Le Foret to convince me that I was mistaken. While certification as a Master Chef doesn’t necessarily indicate one is a great cook, Corwell certainly is. There is a level of refinement to his cooking. He demonstrates attention to detail, precise technique and, most importantly, a marriage on the plate of those skills to excellent ingredients and imaginative cooking.
That first visit to Le Foret was a revelation. Corwell took something as simple as French onion soup and made it sublime with the addition of a Gruyère soufflé. The venerable dish of braised leeks – surely a nod to the classical training Corwell received at the CIA – was an eye-opener. The tender leeks were served cold and paired with figs, walnuts, a roquefort mousse and thinly sliced beets. Lobster and sweetbreads were served in a puff pastry cup, with a cream sauce that never threatened to overwhelm the subtlety of the ingredients.
More recently I sampled a trio of farm-raised rabbit consisting of a roasted rack, a loin stuffed with fig and a braised leg served in a fresh pasta terrine, all with a mustard and pumpkin conserve. Every item on the plate was perfectly cooked, and the dish highlighted three different ways to cook the light, lean meat.
At that same meal, a colleague had the grilled noisettes of veal saltimbocca. My colleague is from New York, and is very familiar with top-flight Italian cooking. He was most impressed with the dish, which included a classic risotto Milanese, autumn vegetable stew, sweetbreads and shaved truffle.
Corwell is a native of Atlanta, and has worked in France, Germany, Southeast Asia, New York City, San Francisco and the Napa Valley, where he was the lead instructor and executive chef of the Greystone Restaurant on the campus of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. He has, to put it mildly, his bona fides.
– Robert Peyton
Le Foret, 129 Camp St., 553-6738, leforetneworleans.com
UNDER THE RADAR
When The Roosevelt New Orleans hotel re-opened after extensive renovations in July 2009, it received a great deal of attention. The Blue Room, John Besh and Alon Shaya’s modern Italian restaurant Domenica and the Sazerac bar all generated substantial buzz. The Sazerac restaurant, on the other hand, didn’t receive as much notice. That is a shame because it’s a beautiful space, and under chef Cody Curl the kitchen is turning out excellent food.
The initial concept of the restaurant was to pay homage to the tradition and history of both the hotel and the city. It was a challenge to honor both the memories and to make the restaurant relevant to today’s diners. When I spoke to the hotel’s general manager Tod Chambers, he told me that they could have skewed too far toward honoring tradition with the original menu.
He might be right: Though the food I sampled shortly after the restaurant began service was uniformly good, it lacked much to distinguish it from any number of other traditional New Orleans restaurants. The current menu strikes a balance between celebrating the restaurant’s history and paying attention to modern culinary trends.
Stefan Kauth is the hotel’s executive chef, but Curl was recently installed as chef de cuisine, and he has the greatest influence on the day-to-day operation of the kitchen. Curl is a native of Dallas, where he attended culinary school and worked with chef Dean Fearing at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. He grasps the concept of both maintaining respect for what’s gone before and satisfying diners who expect the restaurant in a hotel like The Roosevelt to provide more challenging offerings.
There is a Creole gumbo on the current menu, but also a salad of watermelon and arugula with serrano ham, marcona almonds and lemon-jalapeño vinaigrette. There are tasting plates that can be ordered in small or large sizes, such as: crispy sweetbreads with a leek and potato puree; crawfish tails and sauce Nantua; and garlic-roasted giant prawns with a saffron paella and crawfish-cognac sauce. The menu also has a menu of plates to share that include lobster “BLT” sliders, duck liver pâté and warm raclette cheese served with duck confit, fig jam and toasted sourdough bread.
Curl says that guests have described the buttermilk marinated fried poussin served with garlic mashed potatoes, greens and a cream gravy as the best fried chicken they’ve ever had. He has received similar accolades from diners who’ve tried the lavender honey glazed duck, which features a seared breast and confit of the leg over a purée of yam, foie gras bread dumplings and a Sazerac whiskey sauce.
The décor of the dining room is consistent with that of the hotel. It is a large room, with high ceilings and light-colored walls decorated with sketches by artist Paul Ninas, whose original mural still adorns a wall of the Sazerac bar. Sheer curtains hang between large columns and open onto the hotel lobby. When the restaurant opened the curtains were closed, but these days they’re pulled back and give the restaurant a more open feeling. The restaurant is an excellent complement to the Sazerac bar, and more folks should sit down to a meal there after a cocktail or two at the famous watering hole.
Every aspect of the restaurant has been designed to provide a feeling that is formal yet casual. The wait staff wears tailored uniforms and the pace of service is relaxed, but the serving ware is modern and relatively unadorned in order to emphasize the food rather than the plate.
Because the Sazerac restaurant deserves to be better known than it is, we’re delighted to present it with the “Under the Radar” award for 2010.
Sazerac restaurant, The Roosevelt New Orleans, 123 Baronne St., 568-1200
Merriam-Webster defines “icon” as “an object of uncritical devotion,” and right next to the definition is a picture of Mosca’s – at least in the eyes of the many devotees, it should be.
Mosca’s Restaurant opened in 1946 on Highway 90 in a most unimpressive location: west of Avondale, in the unincorporated area of Waggaman.
Provino Mosca immigrated to America in 1913 from his home in San Benedetto del Tronto, along Italy’s central Adriatic coast, in the province of Ascoli Piceno. He settled in Chicago Heights, Ill., and married an Italian woman, Lisa, whose mother ran a restaurant in Indiana. Provino and Lisa soon opened their own restaurant in Chicago Heights and settled into the business of raising a family.
Mary, the only daughter of three siblings, met her husband, Vincent Marconi, a South Louisiana oyster fisherman, during a family visit to Louisiana relatives. Provino liked the area very much, its fresh seafood and love of good food reminded him of his home in Italy.
Also unfolding was the saga of son John, who was called to action in World War II and wounded on the front lines of the Mediterranean Theatre. Because of his restaurant experience, John was tapped to assist in palaces and villas where he served such luminaries as Sir Winston Churchill, General Charles de Gaulle, Marshall Tito and Clare Boothe Luce.
About the time of John’s return from the war, Provino and Lisa decided to open a restaurant in their new found home, Louisiana. Mosca’s Willswood opened in 1946, right where it sits today.
The place was an immediate hit, and was particularly popular because Provino kept Mosca’s open late. He worked in the kitchen, with Lisa and John supplying assistance in both the back and the front of the house. The cuisine became quite famous, not only because it was fresh and creative, but because of the loving care this family put into every dish.
To Provino, Lisa, John, Mary and Mary’s husband, Vincent, this was important work, and it was family business.
All of the accolades and the recognition felt good, but providing excellent Italian fare was the main order.
In 1981, John married Mary Jo Angelotti, of Chicago Heights, and Lisa, now called Mama Mosca, taught the new bride how to prepare every dish. To this day, the second generation, John and Mary, alongside Mary Jo, is still in the kitchen and in the restaurant every night it’s open. Provino died in 1962; Momma Mosca passed in ’79; and Vincent in 2004.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita weren’t kind, and the restaurant took a beating. But the clapboard roadhouse was put back together; the materials are new, but the weathered look that makes the place feel like home is still there. The long bar running along the back of one of the dining rooms still has florescent lights and “rocks” glasses in which you can have your cocktail or your wine.
The menu is simple and absolutely inspired. Garlic is a main ingredient here, with crab, oysters, chicken and shrimp in support positions. Begin the meal with the crab salad. The Shrimp Mosca, Oysters Mosca, Chicken a la Grande and the Chicken Cacciatore are on everyone’s list of great New Orleans dishes.
Little secret: Some folks don’t know to order the Mosca’s Sausage. Next time you go, get it. It is homemade and not to be missed.
Another little secret: Play the juke box. One of the best selections of early rock-n-roll in town.
One more thing: it’s pronounced “Musca’s,” not “Mawsca’s.”
John, Mary and Mary Jo are the next-generation essence of every immigrant’s American dream, and they’re the dearest examples of New Orleans hospitality. Staff members are chosen because they are committed to this place and to this family.
If you’re heading from the East Bank of the Mississippi River for a night at Mosca’s, it’s worth every scary moment of driving over the under-construction Huey P. Long Bridge.
– Tim McNally
Mosca’s Restaurant, 4137 U.S. Highway 90 West, Westwego, 436-9942, www.moscasrestaurant.com