Best of Dining
Best of 2010 Chefs, Restaurants, Front of the House, Behind the Bar, Ethnic and More
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MAÎTRE D’ OF THE YEAR
Larry Nguyen is from New Orleans – the first generation of his family to be born here. He is a graduate of West Jefferson High School and received a degree in marketing from Louisiana State University in 1999. But perhaps a more important part of his education came from growing up in a big family that operated restaurants and groceries on the West Bank and in New Orleans East. Those places are no longer around, and in fact Nguyen was so young when they closed that he doesn’t remember their names. He does remember being in fifth grade and working a cash register; he was so small that he needed a stepstool to reach the register, which he said customers found adorable. It is clear from watching Nguyen work that he places a great deal of value on making people feel comfortable, which is a perfect trait for a maître d’
Maître d’ isn’t his formal title; he’s the general manager of Café Minh – but he has always been the kind of manager who walks the floor and interacts with patrons. When he started at Lemongrass Café, chef Minh Bui’s former restaurant in the International House Hotel (and the precursor to Café Minh), he was an expediter. Typically that involves standing between the dining room and the kitchen, relaying orders. Nguyen, of course, took on a more active role. “I love multitasking,” he says. He monitored the staff to make sure that customers were receiving the proper attention and interacted with diners as well. “You can’t just define a person by a title,” he told me.
There was a time when he wanted to get out of the restaurant business. When he went to college in Baton Rouge, he intended to leave food service behind, but he was at LSU on a work study program, and his first assignment was the cafeteria. He briefly transferred to the entomology department but soon decided that food was better than bugs. He started working in the kitchen of a Thai restaurant in Baton Rouge, and one day the owner asked if he could wait tables. He had never done it before but agreed to give it a shot. He hasn’t looked back.
After college he never gave much thought to leaving New Orleans. He returned in 2000, and some friends recommended he check out Lemongrass. He worked there for a while but eventually wanted to branch out and took positions at Rene Bistrot, Cobalt and Cuvée, where he was working when Hurricane Katrina hit. After the storm, Cuvée reopened for dinner only, and Lemongrass came back serving only lunch. Nguyen worked at both restaurants until chef Cynthia Tran of Lemongrass told him the workload was killing him and that he should choose between the two restaurants.
Nguyen chose Lemongrass and stayed there through the restaurant’s closing in August 2006. When Cafe Minh opened around Thanksgiving ’06, Nguyen was on board as the general manager.
He names Raymond Naquin, who managed Lemongrass when he started there; Jeff Kundinger, the former manager and sommelier at Cuvée; and Chris Ycaza, also of Cuvée and now at Galatoire’s, as his mentors.
Although it may not be his formal title, Nguyen’s role at Cafe Minh certainly fits the current definition of maître d’. He interacts with customers, makes sure that guests are having a good time and makes them laugh. “If that means I have to do a little dance, I’ll do a little dance,” he says. “I think I put a lot of people at ease just by being goofy.”
Café Minh 4139 Canal St. 482-6266
BARTENDER OF THE YEAR
Visitors and locals alike shuffle in and settle down. The lights dim, and the first notes of New Orleans jazz emanate from the stage. Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street is an every-night kind of place; a happy place presenting live music as only New Orleans can truly offer. Nothing artificial; everything authentic.
Guests at Irvin Mayfield’s may not realize it when they enter, but by the time they leave, they know they have experienced a solid evening of wonderful sounds, and have also enjoyed some amazing drinks. Again, nothing artificial; everything authentic.
It is easy to discern that mixologist Tiffany Soles is an integral part of the Jazz Playhouse sensory experience. The location and its guests are the fortunate recipients of Soles’ talents and her smile. When she smiles, there’s joy throughout the room.
Soles becoming a force behind the bar was pre-destined, sort-of. She has a degree in psychology from Texas Christian University in her birth city of Ft. Worth. It makes you want to be careful what you tell this girl during your time at her bar. She initially thought that sports medicine would be a good fit for her, and maybe mixing drinks is still a step in that direction.
Like so many before her, Soles came to New Orleans for “only one week” to celebrate her birthday. She never gave a thought to serving cocktails, and she gave even less thought to living in New Orleans. Now it seems like she had planned the course of her life, which was to be here, doing this.
Her interest in cocktails began at a lower level, just tending bar for extra cash. Along came Tales of the Cocktail, the annual festival of spirits held here, and that led to her interest in the activities at the Museum of the American Cocktail, located in the Riverwalk.
Hook, line and sinker. She was all in, studying her newly found craft and experimenting with what works, and what does not.
She is a true believer in the “Gospel of Fresh.” Every ingredient has to be as fresh as it can be.
“You can make a drink from packaged ingredients and canned juices, and you can make the same drink with all fresh ingredients. They will taste like two different drinks. I love to see the expression on our guest’s faces when they taste the drink they always order, and we make it for them fresh, from scratch. Suddenly they ‘discover’ a drink they know, and enjoy it in a whole new light,” Soles explains.
Soles isn’t afraid of experimentation, which has become the hallmark of today’s new breed of mixologists. She continually seeks flavors that work well together, and seeks those that seemingly don’t. The popular watermelon jalapeño margarita, a great creation of flavors that can’t possibly work (but it really does), proves that point beyond discussion.
She likes preparing New Orleans-style drinks for the visiting crowd. “Hurricanes aren’t my favorite, but they are one of our most requested drinks. I know when I get an order for that drink that locals are probably not involved.
Yet, I want to make the best Hurricane that can be made, and I strive to do it many times every night.”
Soles does like the fact that Irvin Mayfield’s is attracting a regular crowd of New Orleanians. “We are seeing more neighbors coming in and enjoying the music, along with bar snacks and good drinks. It means a lot to the club to have ‘regulars’ who are locals.”
There is nothing shabby about Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans jazz interpretations; and nothing shabby about the drinks being created and concocted by Tiffany Soles, New Orleans Magazine’s Bartender of the Year.
Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, Royal Sonesta Hotel, 300 Bourbon St., www.sonesta.com
COOKBOOK OF THE YEAR
P&J OYSTER COOKBOOK
BY KIT WOHL AND THE SUNSERI FAMILY
It hasn’t been a great year for oysters; one of the most desired raw ingredients of New Orleans cuisine took a terrible blow from the oil disaster in the Gulf. An entire oyster season was wiped out, denying oyster fishermen income and limiting access by a hungry public. This doesn’t even begin to consider the environmental damage, not to mention the other terrible results of the explosion and the spill.
Fortunately for all of us, it’s been a great year for oyster cookbooks and, because there will no doubt be a comeback of the bivalves, we can appreciate what we’re now missing by reading and relishing recipes featuring our favorite source of protein.
In developing The P&J Oyster Cookbook, the Sunseri family of P&J Oyster fame brought into the project noted local author of seven other books about dining and gastronomy, Kit Wohl. The collaboration yielded what is probably the most beautiful and delightful oyster book ever published. With the involvement of publisher, Pelican Press, there was a full, local team creating and producing this book. The timing of the book’s release makes the volume even more deserving of our respect.
P&J Oyster Company is the oldest business of its kind in the United States, approaching 130 years of operation.
Back in the mid-1800s, John Popich was one of the many immigrants from Croatia who found his way to New Orleans, quickly joining his fellow countrymen harvesting the beautiful and wild oyster beds of southern Louisiana.
Joseph Jurisich was the orphaned son of a couple who owned and operated an oyster saloon in the French Quarter.
In 1876, the men joined up and concentrated on what each did best. Popich harvested and Jurisich sold. They prospered and, in 1921, took two important steps.
The first was to purchase a building on the corner of North Rampart and Toulouse streets on the edge of the French Quarter (still the company’s main office and preparation center). And they brought into the business a part-time salesman and bookkeeper, the husband of Jurisich’s first cousin, Alfred Sunseri.
The successful collaboration only stumbled once. While “moonlighting” at P&J, Sunseri remained an employee of United Fruit Company, the Chiquita Banana people. In the early 1930s, Sunseri was offered a better position with United Fruit if he would move to Baltimore. Less than six months after Sunseri’s departure, the business at P&J declined. The partners now realized that Sunseri was using his United Fruit contacts to assist their business. They contacted Sunseri in Baltimore, offered him more money and a one-third partnership. Sunseri jumped at the chance to return to his beloved New Orleans.
The rest, as they say, is history. Continuing the family theme, The P&J Oyster Cookbook was a dream of Bobbie, mother of the current Sunseri clan: Al, Sal, Merri and Blake. Over the years Bobbie assembled bits and scraps of recipes in hopes of one day bringing them together. She passed away in 2004, but not before extracting a promise from her family that they would create an oyster cookbook.
The P&J Oyster Cookbook would make Bobbie very proud indeed; it’s dedicated to her. This is a stunning, oversized volume, filled with photographs of dishes suitable for framing, mostly taken by the author herself.
The 200 recipes are from a variety of sources, including great New Orleans restaurants, their noted chefs and from the Sunseri family. It is a love poem to oysters as told by people who passionately adore them.
One of the hallmarks of being a New Orleanian is remembering first encounters. These include memories of Carnival, escapades with the opposite sex, grand dining experiences, hurricanes and that first oyster eaten. We savor those moments.
The P&J Oyster Cookbook lays out for us whole new vistas of enjoying our favorite seafood, raw or meticulously prepared. Let us hope those days are very near. We look forward to once again enjoying a kiss with the sea.
P&J Oyster Cookbook by Kit Wohl and the Sunseri Family, Pelican Press, Gretna
SPECIALTY SHOP OF THE YEAR
It has been a busy year for Henry Albert, owner of Rare Cuts. Within the last 12 months he has opened stores in three locations – Mandeville, River Ridge and Uptown, respectively – delivering his high-quality steaks customers on both sides of the lake. Combining a quality product with a clever business model, which essentially functions as a restaurant-grade purveyor aimed at the retail market, this burgeoning hybrid butcher shop won our nomination for Specialty Shop of the Year.
Albert reports that business is booming. “Our repeat business at all locations has been spectacular. The trick is getting new faces in the door. Coming into the holidays, we are expecting it to be our busiest time of the year.”
Football season has ignited sales. Outside of typical tailgating purchases – ribs, burgers and sausage – Albert has been moving meat for the more hardcore (and literal) pigskin fans. “One of the things that jumps out are the whole pigs,” he says. “We sold seven on a recent Saturday ranging from 30-pound sucklings to 110-pound hogs. We’ve gotten the traditional tailgate requests, but if anything stands out, it’s the pigs.”
The bread and butter (or more accurately steak and potatoes) of Albert’s offerings concern dry and wet aged beef, cut to spec and Cryovac-ed into take-away sized portions. The aging is key: Wet aging takes place inside the Cryovac bag, making the meat far more tender. Dry aging, on the other hand, is done on the bone in the Mandeville shop, enhancing the flavor of the beef with a pronounced nuttiness and complexity. The Black Angus beef is sourced from a handful of carefully selected purveyors, primarily Harris Ranch and Brandt Beef in California.
“They have full control of their animals from birth to process, and produce a consistently great steak.” The beef is hormone- and antibiotic-free and raised on a 100-percent vegetarian diet. In addition to the Black Angus, Kobe-style American Wagyu beef is offered as well, with its terrific, flavorful marbling.
Albert has broadened his offerings for the holidays. October saw flocks of pre-ordered, all-natural free range Thanksgiving turkeys arrive from Tanglewood Farms. “Fresh, not frozen,” Albert explains. “Basically, they go from the field to your table in three days.” Going into December, look for lamb crown roasts for special occasions along with his new boutique ‘Black Label’ line. “That is essentially for Christmas – I’m taking filets that I usually age for 20 days and aging them for 50 instead, and then hand-selecting them after I cut. Ribeyes I’m aging for 60 and strips I’m aging for 70. They are going to be packaged in nice gift-style boxes.” Given the long aging process, time pre-ordering is recommended, although he plans to stock some on the shelf to accommodate last-minute purchases; more information is available on their website.
Along with the meats in the shop, look for a small assortment of sides including double stuffed baked potatoes with Niman Ranch bacon and Three Cheese and Shitake Mushroom Scalloped Potatoes. “We’re also going to start carrying some fresh greens, like asparagus, in small quantities, for one-stop shopping.” And meat lovers, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the grill outside the Magazine Street location – if it’s fired up, it means free samples.
Rare Cuts, 801 Nashville Ave.
267-4687; 5860 Citrus Blvd., Suite V, Harahan, 309-8391; 1600 W. Causeway Approach, Suite 5, Mandeville, (985) 778-0800; store.rarecuts.com.
All photos above: MARYLOU UTTERMOHLEN
CLASSIC NEW ORLEANS FINE DINING RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
This year marked the centennial of founder Owen Brennan’s birth. He would be proud of his legacy. Along the way this phenomenally influential restaurant has elevated not just dinner, but breakfast into an art form and given the city Bananas Foster, arguably its most famous dessert. A Brandy Milk Punch or two during brunch on the beautiful courtyard remains one of the most pleasurable ways to pass a long morning in the French Quarter.
417 Royal St., 525-9711, brennansneworleans.com