Best of Dining

Our Annual Buffet of Top People and Places

Had there been a mountain for us to meet on top of, we would have met there. That would have symbolized the respect we have for the local restaurant scene.    

Living below sea level, we settled on our office conference room where our dining writers and editorial staff pondered the past year’s restaurant scene and came up with the picks that follow. Some choices were obviously easy; others required some debate; and one, it was decided, would be resolved only after another visit, which didn’t live up to expectations.

Food coverage by the media is often criticized, with justification, for focusing on the new and overlooking what has been there. For that reason we continue our practice of having an “Honor Roll” category to remind us of places that have survived the challenges of time, as well as an “Under the Radar” category to draw attention to places that perform well without the benefit of much publicity.

Dining is a volatile industry with changes coming as quickly as a switch in chefs. The people and places mentioned here are nevertheless worthy of recognition. To us, they are the top of the mountain.

 

 

 

 


SARA ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPH

Chef of the Year
Tenney Flynn
In a challenging year for seafood he prevailed

GW Fins, 808 Bienville St., 581-3467, GWFins.com

New Orleans is not about “cute.” Outrageous, yes. Over-the-top, for sure. No concept of moderation, absolutely. But “cute” we don’t do.

Many cities around the country are settings for restaurant concepts that are cute. Not here. Even when a former church is taken over and transformed into a restaurant, we don’t take it to cute. Here, we take what’s on the plate seriously; ingredients, proper preparation and kitchen talent win the day.

That is why it’s particularly fitting that we honor a devoted and serious New Orleans chef – again.

Tenney Flynn, founder and executive chef of GW Fins, has been honored here before (as Chef of the Year by New Orleans Magazine in 2005). But even in a town where there are a lot of very talented chefs doing world-renowned work, Flynn continues to demonstrate passion and distinction for his creations of mostly local (but often beyond local) fish.

It has been an interesting turn for a guy who started his career devoted to high-end steaks. Flynn and his partner, Gary Wollerman, were really big deals for Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Gary was chief operating officer and Flynn was head corporate chef. They were all about the beef and the sizzle. Fish was on the menu but not in the establishment’s name.

Back in those days, the GW Fins concept was discussed by these guys but never acted upon. Bringing fresh fish to a town that adores the food, and sits right next door to one of the greatest fisheries on the planet, was now the direction; it was an idea that could no longer be ignored and for which the time had come.

“From the beginning in 2001, wherever we sourced the fish from, it has been our concept to purchase the product whole. We’ll do the necessary knife-work in our kitchens on the freshest fish available. And we use no plate warmers. No heat lamps. We want that fresh fish to be prepared properly and served immediately to our guests,” Flynn says.

The other important consideration, even before a fish gets into the GW Fins kitchen, is temperature. “You can tell a lot about a fish by looking at it and smelling it. No question that even after cooking, a properly handled fish will appear fresh and appealing. The key element in handling fish is temperature. We never accept fish that has obviously exceeded best storage temperatures during its trip to us. Purchasing is the hardest thing we do.  “And fresh fish cannot be done in volume. It’s a one-at-a-time activity when done correctly,” he says.

While there are still many fish offered on the menu, the main source of product is the Gulf of Mexico. Flynn is very proud of what the Gulf brings to his restaurant. He notes, “Many people don’t realize that we’re the No. 2 producer of tuna in America, right after Hawaii. When we have tuna on the menu, and we almost always do, it’s so fresh because it comes from right next door to New Orleans.”

As for his views on the long-term effects from the BP oil rig disaster, he just doesn’t know. We know the short-term effects on the fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers, he explains, but we don’t know the long-term effects on the environment. He doesn’t like the early indications, yet he emphasizes that nature is a powerful force. He is optimistic that everyone and everything can get through this, but “When?” is the question.

Flynn lives by the creed that you are only as good as the last dish that left the kitchen. And he knows that his guests judge him by their last dining experience. That is important to know because New Orleans is a “dish” town.

“Talk to anyone in New Orleans about a restaurant, and chances are they’ll soon focus on a particular dish. In some parts of the country, people talk about ambience, or parking, or the wait staff, but here our guests are quite focused on particular dishes. It demonstrates that New Orleanians know how to cook, and they know what it takes to make something very good. They also know when something isn’t as right as it should be. That puts added pressure on everyone on my side of the business. The pressure is something we gladly accept. We love it when our guests are involved.”

Flynn has now taken his culinary passion back one step: He just obtained his diving license and is now meandering among, possibly, his future daily specials.

Not only are the efforts and an ongoing pursuit of excellence – under pretty trying circumstances over the past few years – worthy of repeated recognitions, but you’ve got to admire a guy who doesn’t shy away from making a fish-centric restaurant look like a high-end steak restaurant.

Hey, it if works, it works. Fins works.

– Tim McNally


SARA ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPH

Comeback Chef of the Year
Rene Bajeux
Native Frenchman back home in New Orleans

Rib Room, 621 Saint Louis St., 529-7045, RibRoomNewOrleans.com

When chef René Bajeux returned to his namesake restaurant in the Renaissance Pere Marquette after Hurricane Katrina, he and two cooks served food in the hotel’s lobby for a short time. As time passed and the hotel wrangled with their insurer, he became frustrated and decided to take some time off. Then he received an offer to take over the kitchen at La Provence.

Bajeux grew up on a farm in France and felt that the Lacombe restaurant, with its gardens and livestock, was the perfect fit. He was there briefly, but it didn’t work out, and when he was offered a job as a consultant at the Cap Jaluca resort on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, he accepted.

After a year, he took a similar position with a resort on the French side of nearby St. Martin, La Samanna. Another year passed and Bajeux was trying to make his way back to New Orleans when the BP oil disaster happened. A friend offered him a position in San Antonio, he accepted and so another year passed.

Bajeux says he never felt like he’d truly left New Orleans. His family stayed here and he returned to spend time with them when he could.

Although each of the consulting jobs he took could have been permanent, Bajeux was adamant that he never considered living anywhere but New Orleans. He can’t, he says, because there’s no place else like New Orleans in the United States.

At the end of his time in San Antonio, he received three offers to return to New Orleans in the span of two weeks. He came back and interviewed at all three, eventually choosing the Rib Room. It wasn’t the most intuitive of choices, but Bajeux felt that it was a restaurant where he could make the biggest impact. He was familiar with the restaurant’s operation after Hurricane Katrina, and felt that it was somewhat neglected culinarily. He liked the people involved and felt that he could improve things. In the short time he’s been there he’s certainly done that, but he has plans to continue what’s already the most significant restaurant renaissance in recent memory.

The first sign of change at the Rib Room occurred shortly after Bajeux arrived. The restaurant had been serving products that Bajeux found less than satisfactory. “Why do you need to serve tilapia when there’s fish in the Gulf?” he asks. Similarly, he replaced pasteurized crabmeat with fresh, and eliminated frozen vegetables and fish from the kitchen. Bajeux says that this requires attention and management ability; the reason restaurants use pasteurized crabmeat is because it has a longer shelf life, and the same is true for frozen fish. If a restaurant doesn’t sell these products before they expire, it’s a significant waste. But Bajeux is uncompromising, and thus far his judgment has proven sound. Recently the Rib Room started selling more fish than meat for the first time in its history. “It’s still a manly room,” he says, but he seems pleased to note that more women are dining there lately.

Bajeux also insisted on making products, such as stock, in-house. The onion soup that formerly relied on beef base is now made the traditional way with reduced veal stock. He sources rabbit from Mississippi, and gets as much of his produce locally as he possibly can. These are changes that the vast majority of patrons have enjoyed, and which reflect Bajeux’s real goal: to change the spirit of the kitchen.

What he’s accomplished so far is just the beginning of what Bajeux has planned. He wants to expand the rotisserie area to make it even more of the focus of the dining room. He is thinking of adding a bone-in ribeye and braised short ribs to the menu, and while he retained all of the restaurant’s employees who were there when he arrived, he’s looking for additional passionate cooks to join the team.

Not everything has changed, of course. The Rib Room still serves prime rib that, Bajeux says, is unique due to its large size. When he arrived, he found that the restaurant had recently changed the source of its beef; he returned to the original purveyor. “This is never going to be an avant-garde restaurant,” he recognizes, but that doesn’t bother him. He relayed something he was taught as a young man, that the true measure of a great chef isn’t how he presents foie gras, but rather what he can do with humble ingredients such as oxtail. Bajeux is a man who loves to cook for people, and New Orleans is lucky that he chose to return to cook for us. Because of his passion, and because of his revitalization of the Rib Room, we are pleased to name René Bajeux the Comeback Chef of the Year, 2011.  

– Robert Peyton


SARA ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPH

Under the Radar
Martinique Bistro
Secret chef, not-so-secret garden

Martinique Bistro, 5908 Magazine St., 891-8495, MartiniqueBistro.com

At Martinique Bistro, its very beauty can be a source of angst, as the charms of the restaurant’s courtyard dining area can distract from the efforts of executive chef Eric LaBouchere. “Here we are always recognized for the loveliness of the courtyard, but our chef is very talented, too!” points out owner Cristiano Raffignone – and he’s correct. LaBouchere starts with traditional French bistro dishes and then incorporates local ingredients, along with exotic spice combinations, to realize his West Indies French Colonial-inspired cuisine. This can be as simple as his Creole Onion and Andouille Sausage Soup, or as complex as his preparation of Steen’s Cane Syrup Cured Duck Breast and Confit Leg Quarter served with a cherry-infused demi-glace. LaBouchere reaches deeper into his cosmopolitan larder to come up with surprises such as a yuzu-spiked beurre blanc and the Braised Pork Cheek Salad underscored with peppery arugula. “Chef LaBouchere’s Mussels with Piment d’Espelette (an appellation-controlled pepper grown in southern France) is one of my favorite dishes,” says Raffignone.

Like its namesake island, Martinique’s fare has the power to transport diners from the heart of a city to a lush, secret retreat. While this understated bistro on Magazine Street has ticked along quietly for years as a neighborhood favorite, if you haven’t been lately you’ll notice a few significant changes. “We’ve done a complete facelift within the last two years,” says Kelly Barker, who co-owns the restaurant with Raffignone. “The interior has been redone with a lot of additions to fabrication, and we have added seating to the inside bar area, which before was standing-room only.”

However, the most significant changes were made to the outside entranceway, where the addition of an arbor and an outdoor bar area added some much-needed seating and comfort in terms of the waiting area. “Now our customers have a place to sit and enjoy a drink while waiting for a table,” Barker says. “That is a big improvement, because before if it was raining we had an issue with people not having a place to wait comfortably.”

Another improvement is that the patio can be tented in cold weather. “It really increases our seating capacity going into Christmas. It may be a bit aesthetically surprising to guests the first time, but it works very well and we’ve been doing it the last two years,” Barker says.

These add-ons, adding up to three seats inside and about five outside, may sound small, but given the boutique proportions of Martinique they make a real difference. The outside bar area, in particular, is a pleasant addition, helping to create an effortless transition from inside to outside spaces while adding comfort to the waiting area. It adds texture, height and greenery to the already verdant space, which compliments the food and its quasi-tropical focus. Inside the warm colors and dark wood are opened up with a multitude of windows overlooking the courtyard. All these elements combine harmoniously while making the restaurant more of a competitive year-round option than a fair-weather friend.

This is good because there’s a lot on the menu to draw diners in the cooler months. “Chef LaBouchere is very good about using local products and is adamant about using local ingredients. Local seafood and local herbs in particular,” says Raffignone. Soul-warming French classics such as Coq au Vin get a porcine bump from some pancetta in the broth, and a late-autumn gratinée of butternut squash and parsnips included tangy goat cheese flavored with roasted garlic and herbs fresh from pots on the courtyard. Dishes such as the Seared Flat-Iron Steak dolled up with a brandy-and-green-peppercorn demi-glace stand in for the more entry-level steak and frites found on most bistro menus and, no matter how cold it may be outside, consider trying some of their signature ice creams for dessert, including a recurring version that uses Guinness stout.

Some features of the restaurant remain seasonal, like the Friday lunch, but that seating is still in effect; it runs Labor Day through college graduation in May. Their Saturday and Sunday brunches are popular (be sure to try their Flank Steak with Duck-Fat Roasted Potatoes, served with poached eggs and the doubly decadent combination of béarnaise and demi-glace sauces), and keep Martinique in mind for events should you be looking for function space during the week. “We are available for weddings, parties, receptions and the like,” Barker says. “We also do catering on- and off-site.”          

– Jay Forman

 


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Restaurateur of the Year
Ralph Brennan
Spreading the gospel of great cuisine

The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, NewOrleans-Food.com

Most cities are not fortunate enough to get a Ralph Brennan. They get pieces, but not the whole deal in one package.

You can find excellent business people just about everywhere. And you can usually, not always, find good restaurateurs wherever you go. Then there are bundles of energy who never seem to stop.

In New Orleans, we have all of them – and we have Brennan.

When you grow up a Brennan in New Orleans, there are expectations. You are supposed to go into the restaurant business. You are supposed to be good at it. And you’re supposed to eat, sleep and breathe Creole cuisine. In Ralph’s case, all of that’s true.

“My first experience with restaurants was at Brennan’s on Royal Street. I was a prep cook. Not very glamorous because it’s all about routine and rote tasks, but I loved it. Loved the friendships that develop, the smells and flavors,” Brennan remembers.

Brennan has a great aptitude for the management side of the business. For a while after earning an MBA from Tulane University, he even approached the restaurant industry as a certified public accountant with Price Waterhouse. But ultimately that wasn’t quite close enough to the action.

Today, Brennan’s restaurants punctuate the dining scene in New Orleans and beyond. Red Fish Grill in the French Quarter serves up dishes on which this city’s culinary reputation is based.

“We had to be at Ground Zero for New Orleans visitors in the French Quarter. You have to be here because this is where New Orleans happens.

But the real truth is that one evening years ago I couldn’t satisfy my craving for grilled fish, and I just figured I wasn’t the only one who loved fresh fish prepared that way. That’s how Red Fish Grill was born, through my desire for a dish that I had a hard time finding one night.” (Another popular Ralph Brennan restaurant, Bacco, closed its location in the French Quarter earlier this year. Brennan is reportedly seeking another site to re-open the Italian restaurant at some point in the future.)

Ralph’s on the Park in the Mid-City/City Park area is a comfortably upscale dining experience.

“When we saw the building, we were hooked. The architecture and the history were irresistible. At the time we fell in love with it, it wasn’t even for sale.”

And Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen in California’s Disneyland Resort, Downtown Disney District, carries the New Orleans banner to the West Coast. “What an opportunity to bring the gospel of New Orleans cuisine to a Disney operation. We leaped at the opportunity, and it’s been a grand association.”

Then there are the newer “shiny toys” that expand the Ralph Brennan style of multiple experiences in geographically diverse locations. Café b in Metairie is a real neighborhood bistro, comfortable and congenial. “I wanted to open something in a neighborhood I knew well when I was growing up, and to give the people who live in that area a place that is their own. Sort of a social gathering spot but serving solid, locally rooted creations, not too complicated.”

The lunch-only business restaurant in Heritage Plaza was an interesting project in that Ralph and team were able to walk into a place practically turnkey. “But the real positives in that location are the two large kitchens. This will allow us to expand our catering services and special event activities.”

The newest member of the group is also an owner-walks-in-starts-serving venue located in the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park, Ralph Brennan’s Courtyard Café. “What a setting. We’ve opened the feel of the place up a bit. You have the beautiful and renowned collection of fine art on three sides, then the splendor of City Park on the other side. We are very proud to be in NOMA.”

Ralph Brennan’s New Orleans Seafood Cookbook was released to high acclaim in 2008 (New Orleans Magazine’s Cookbook of the Year), and is now in its second printing.

“I really never saw this expansion movement coming. I thought for certain after (Hurricane) Katrina that we would see a slow-down in the industry, but after we all picked ourselves back up it was like someone shot a starting gun, with new restaurants opening up steadily as the old ones came back on stream over a period of time.”

Brennan’s commitment to his industry is legendary. He is past chairman and president of the National Restaurant Association, and past president of both the Louisiana and New Orleans Restaurant Associations.

Brennan served as chairman of the board of the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center from 1996 through 2005, overseeing the construction and opening of Phase 3, which added 1 million square feet to the already massive facility.

Brennan; his wife of 30 years, Susan; and their three children are New Orleans, through and through. The rest of us are lucky they are here. 

– T.M.


SARA ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPH

Maitre D of the Year
Danny Millan
Ya gotta have heart … naturally

Le Foret, 129 Camp St., 552-6738, LeForetNewOrleans.com

OK, so there’s this teenager living in Mexico’s capital city. He is like every other teen: a bit wide-eyed with the world; a bit all-knowing; popular; and looking forward to a life in his home country.

One day, Dad, general manager of a fine restaurant on the Reforma, the grand avenue that runs the length of one of the world’s most populous cities, takes another job. Out of the country. In America. In New Orleans. Some restaurant called The Sazerac in a fancy hotel.

Very quickly our teenager finds himself in Warren Easton High School, taking English lessons at Delgado Community College and none too happy about the transition. Goodbye to the only city he knows and friends he has made. Hello, New Orleans.

Along the way, using Dad’s connections, he becomes a busboy at the Sazerac restaurant in what was then the Fairmont; then a better-paying gig comes along at the long-past, long-lamented Henri in Le Meridien Hotel. About this time, Millan’s talents for working professionally were noted by Jimmy Moran of Moran’s Riverside Restaurant. He made Millan a waiter; then it was only a matter of time before he was the manager of the popular restaurant.

Millan wasn’t only gaining valuable on-the-job experience, he was also making friends among his fellow workers and, even more importantly, gaining quite a following among the restaurant’s patrons. So many people thought so much of his ability and demeanor that he was tapped by Emeril Lagasse to open the new Emeril’s restaurant Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla.

Fortunately the call of New Orleans was strong. It was an easy decision to return to New Orleans and become the general manager of Brennan’s on Royal Street. For the next eight years, this was home. When Chef John Besh had plans for expansion, he chose Millan to direct the service at Restaurant August and also to oversee the opening for Lüke, as well as set the front-of-house operation at La Provence on the correct path.

It was a terrific opportunity, and Millan made the most of it. But it wasn’t his operation. Millan wanted his own space. That came along in 2009, when Margaret and Mike Schexnayder, long-time patrons wherever Millan was, shared their vision of a grand dining establishment in a town that maybe didn’t need another. Yet it came to be, and Le Foret has been a wild success by every measure (winner of New Orleans Magazine’s New Restaurant of the Year in 2010). Thanks in part to Millan’s nightly presence on the floor.

“I’m ready to do whatever it takes to make a dining experience at Le Foret memorable. We are in elegant surroundings, have a talented and creative kitchen staff including chef Mimi Assab, and my team on the floor knows exactly what needs to be done, often before anyone else notices,” Millan says.

“Any team can only get better by wanting to do a great job, by knowing what to do and working together to achieve a very elusive goal, making our clients feel special,” he adds.

Besides being the consummate host, Millan also oversees all aspects of operations. He is in charge of staff training. He is involved with catering.

He well knows what’s supposed to come out of the kitchen. He organizes the dining room and the bar area every day. He orders and stocks the wines. And he engenders staff loyalty because he’s loyal.

“My team knows that I will go to bat for them at all times. Of course, if there are negative issues, we’ll handle those fairly. I want my people to be able to count on me to be on their side. And they know I will be fair,” Millan says with pride.

“This is something I learned from my father.”

There is virtually no staff turnover at Le Foret. Interestingly, the loyalty of the staff has also spread to the restaurant’s patrons. Many of the clients who come through the door have known and followed Millan for a long time, going back to different stages of his career. Importantly, he doesn’t let them down. The clients bring with them close friends and business associates because they know they’ll be treated well. And now, those former guests are Millan’s close friends, who bring their friends.

At this rate, there won’t be anyone left in New Orleans who isn’t a friend of Millan’s. That is fine with him.

“Mr. Jimmy Moran told me that he felt something from me. He saw that I really cared and was intent on making people feel welcome. He said that can only come from the heart. It cannot be taught. It’s the greatest compliment anyone ever gave me,” Millan says with pride.

The finest aspects of hospitality from Mexico, Europe, the southern United States and, of course, New Orleans are all present in what Millan does.  
What is unique isn’t necessarily the style, but the “Millan touch.”  

– T.M.


SARA ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPH

Honor Roll
Arnauds
Creole grande dame more sprightly than ever

Arnaud’s, 813 Bienville St., 523-5433, ArnaudsRestaurant.com

In 1918, a colorful Armenian wine salesman with a taste for the finer things opened the landmark restaurant that still bears his name. Over the years, Count Arnaud Cazenave’s restaurant aged like a Premier Grand Cru Bordeaux, acquiring characteristics such as culinary accolades, ghost stories, oyster preparations, additional buildings and an inimitable cachet that was developed further when his perhaps-even-more-colorful daughter Germaine took over the reins. Later, it languished and fell into disarray, until finally being rescued by Archie Casbarian in 1978. Thus began Arnaud’s long renaissance, when it transitioned from its eccentric founding family to find new and more careful stewardship under the care of the Casbarian family. They have ensured that this Creole grande dame will continue to be a New Orleans Institution. For all it has been in the past, is now and will be in the future, we’ve awarded it this year’s Honor Roll Award.

For Archie’s daughter and co-proprietor Katy Casbarian, Arnaud’s is more than a restaurant; it’s where she grew up. “We used to come here after school,” she says. “We did our homework here. We ate the staff ‘family meal’ here. With them, it was like having a lot of brothers and sisters to play with.” There were also, she adds, “a lot of buildings to play hide and seek in.”

She was young when her father took over and embarked on a long series of restorations to the property. It was a massive undertaking. They closed down the restaurant for about four months and reopened building-by-building, completing the work in stages. During the process, Archie ran out of money, scrambled for a way to raise capital and devised a clever solution. “Today in the main dining room there are some old plaques over the tables,” Katy says. “What Dad did was sell tables for a certain amount of money, and in return that patron would get a certain amount of credit for food and beverages. He sold just the amount of tables he needed to get the money to complete the renovation!”

As she and her brother, Archie Jr., grew up, they started working there over their summers. Archie Jr. returned to New Orleans after college to work in the business, and Katy followed suit a couple of years after her own graduation from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, also her father’s alma mater. “We had the opportunity then, as professionals, to work alongside both my parents for a little while.” When Archie died in early 2009, the care of Arnaud’s was passed on to his wife and children. “We were fortunate to have those couple of years working all together before he passed away. It was really special.”

Over the years Arnaud’s has grown to include 13 French Quarter buildings, parceled out in a baroque complex of dining rooms, some public and some private. They each feature unique décor and appointments. The second floor offers a Mardi Gras Museum, which presents a collection of costumes and arcana and is named for the Count’s daughter, Germaine. Remoulade, a casual café fronting Bourbon Street, was added in the 1990s.

“That building was part of our property and when the tenet’s lease expired, my parents saw a need,” Casbarian says. “They wanted to have an oyster bar and offer some of our traditional dishes in a more casual setting.”

Arnaud’s just underwent a new series of renovations culminating in the revamped Mezzanine, a semi-private dining room that overlooks the main dining room. “It used to be, well, kind of ugly, but now it’s absolutely stunning,” Casbarian says. “It is my new favorite room.”

The renovations added to a strong year for 2011, which was a relief thanks to the initial anxiety surrounding the 2010 BP oil disaster. “We didn’t see the considerable drop-off in business which most of us feared because of the public’s perception regarding the safety of Gulf seafood. We had a decent year last year and an even more successful year this year.” For diners, there was a bit of a silver lining, as they scaled up the size of the shrimp in the signature Shrimp Arnaud’s because of sourcing difficulties. “We’ve stayed with the bigger shrimp ever since – we aren’t going back,” Casbarian says.

During the holiday season, the elegant and festive décor will help revive lifelong memories of a Creole Christmas for couples and families alike.

The réveillon menu, which runs through most of December, is a good bargain, and the holiday cocktails ice the deal – “Try (bartender) Chris Hannah’s ‘Tom and Jerry’ at French 75,” Casbarian says. “That alone is worth the trip.” 

– J.F.


SARA ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPH

Bartender of the Year
Chris McMillian
Selling the movement and the city

Bar UnCommon, Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, 817 Common St., 525-1111, BarUnCommon.com   

If there are stories you want, then stories you will most certainly get. Do you want to hear about the colorful history of this city? Do you want to know about how certain cocktails came to be invented? Are you interested in why fresh ingredients are better than mixes?

You should speak with bartender Chris McMillian at Bar UnCommon in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel in the Central Business District.

McMillian hails from Shreveport, but he has pretty much lived all over, the son of an itinerant mother. After stops in California, Alaska and Texas, he was ready to settle down with his own family in Austin. His mother was living in Algiers, so he visited in 1984 – during the World’s Fair.

A vibrant cocktail and drinking scene caught his interest. Since the family’s experiences working in bars goes back several generations to Ireland, Chris decided that Austin could wait. Almost 30 years later, it’s still waiting.

“I really never wanted to stay in one place so bad in all my life. I was truly hooked by this town,” McMillian says. “I got on with a number of bars. I had to make a living for my young family. But the bonus was the fantastic surroundings associated with my profession. I was impressed, actually in awe.”

McMillian worked banquets at the Royal Sonesta. He tended bar in several swanky places. There were rich experiences to be had, and with so many places ready to give this bright, hardworking young man a chance – as well as a decent wage – suddenly the future was in view.

It was an easy step from there after he saw several bar service trade publications on the boss’ desk. “Here was a topic that looked interesting. A bit of alchemy, hardware and glassware knowledge, interfacing directly with the clients, and an interesting array of raw products, all combining into a pleasurable experience,” McMillian says. “I thought I could really get into that.”

Also about this time there occurred a renaissance of cocktails with New Yorkers Dale DeGroff and Tony Abou-Gamin extolling the virtues of fresh ingredients and freshly made drinks. The stage was set for Chris to walk on and ply this craft. He did so locally at the intimate, but no longer open, Library Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  

McMillian didn’t only learn how to make cocktails; he immersed himself in the history of the drinks and even researched literary references. He has completed a series of 20 videos (available through nola.com) not just about making cocktails, but also on the proper service of and stories about the drinks.

One of his most-requested roles/drinks is his performance of the poem “Ode to a Mint Julep,” penned in the 1880s. While reciting the tribute to this very Southern cocktail, McMillian creates the classic iteration, muddling mint, adding bourbon and crushed ice, sweetening to taste and serving the drink in its proper silver cup. The Smithsonian Institution on the Mall in Washington, D.C. requested that Chris stage a performance in the atrium of the National Museum of Natural History. The presentation was filmed by the museum and is now part of their permanent collection.

McMillian and his wife, Laura, together over 30 years, were founding members and still serve on the board of directors of the Museum of the American Cocktail, based in New Orleans, yet actually created by famous mixologists from around the world.

Each month the couple stages a seminar activity at the museum, located in the Riverwalk inside the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, bringing noted mixologists, historians, authors and industry thought leaders to New Orleans to meet with Museum members and developing talents. Education and the betterment of the field are McMillian’s passions.
“The people I admire in my profession are now my dear friends,” McMillian says. “I’m happy that I’m considered one of the leading lights of the awakened cocktail scene. And I’m even more amazed at the travel opportunities and the memorable experiences this has afforded me, taking me literally around the world to spread the gospel of this exciting pursuit.”  
McMillian continues to ply his craft at Bar UnCommon. He devours history and how-to books as well as periodicals. And he loves to tell stories about New Orleans’ culture and history.

He is a charming, gregarious man. Just the sort of guy you hope you find while enjoying a libation.  

– T.M.

 

Farmers Market of the Year
Hollygrove Market and Farm
Bringing quality to underserved neighborhoods

Once upon a time, any urban area of note had at least one open-air market at which area farmers could sell their goods to folks who couldn’t grow their own crops or raise their own livestock. As the country began to rely on industrial farming, and with the rise of national grocery retailers, those markets began to disappear. But over the last 20 years or so, farmers markets have been returning to urban centers.

In 2008, Hollygrove Market and Farm started operation, bringing  another angle to the game – in addition to sourcing products from nearby farms, Hollygrove is itself a farming operation, using space at its Olive Street home to grow crops and educate people about organic farming.

Hollygrove is modeled after community-supported agriculture operations, but it differs in that there’s no requirement to buy into the organization to patronize the market. The retail operation began life as a Saturday market, where for $25 people could show up and take home a range of seasonal produce. These days there are also items available for sale individually, but the mainstay is still the pre-selected CSA-style “box.”

The Olive Street home of the operation now has markets on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Tuesday from noon to 6 p.m. You can also patronize Hollygrove at the French Market on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and in the Maritime condominiums at 800 Common St. on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Finally, there are box-pickup locations at Algiers Point on Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., and at the Jewish Community Center on St. Charles Avenue on Thursday from 5 a.m.to 6 p.m.

The products that Hollygrove brings to its markets are all local, environmentally sustainable and generally of extremely high quality. It isn’t uncommon to see heirloom fruits and vegetables, and there’s always enough in the box to keep you cooking for a week. Though not included in the $25 box, you can also pick up bread, dairy products, eggs and pasture-raised beef at Hollygrove.

Its commitment to bringing local products to underserved neighborhoods, and its continued efforts to expose local youth to the joys of gardening are inspiring.

– R.P.

Hollygrove Market and Farm, 8301 Olive St., 438-7037, HollyGroveMarket.com

Supermarket Makeover of the Year
Rouses on Tchoupitoulas Street
Bringing the chefs to the market

Making groceries Uptown has become less of a chore and more of a pleasure thanks to the Rouses on Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue, this year’s winner of our first-ever “Best Supermarket Makeover” category. Formerly a Sav-a-Center, the Rouse family purchased the property in 2008 and initiated a series of rolling upgrades. Gone is the drugstore area and pharmacy, replaced with an extensive wine collection (separate from the walk-in beer section – a story in itself) and a sprawling array of fresh produce.  The difference with Rouses is that it carries boutique offerings in addition to the usual stuff that most shoppers need but for which they don’t want to pay a premium. The upshot is that instead of having to go to two places, many shoppers now only need go to one.

“After we bought the store, we wanted to do something a little different,” says partner Donny Rouse, whose family has been in the grocery business for three generations. A case in point is their new demonstration kitchen, located just off the wine section, which offers bar-type seating and will begin hosting cooking demonstrations after the first of the year. “We plan to feature some of our in-house chefs, and will also feature other professional chefs from around the area,” he says.

Rouses’ fresh shrimp comes from the Gulf Coast, with about 95 percent of it coming off of Louisiana docks, says Rouse. In the bakery section there’s a section devoted to local pastry shop Sucré, and the freezer cases are stocked with New Orleans Ice Cream Company flavors such as Creole Cream Cheese. “We are from here and we are local,” says Rouse. “We want to support other locals. It is just a natural thing and good for our economy.”   

– J.F.

Rouses, 4500 Tchoupitoulas St., 896-7910, shop.Rouses.com

Best New Concept
Rare Cuts
Customized Private Dining Well Done

Rare Cuts offers an assortment of lovingly cured steaks that will quicken the pulse of any red-blooded carnivore, but this isn’t the only way this specialty shop has carved out a niche and set itself apart from the herd. Earlier this year it partnered with Kellogg School of Management in a strategic planning contest as part of Entrepreneur Week and won the IDEAcorps 2011 Coulter Challenge. Soon afterwards, it launched a website synergistically incorporating insights from the contest. But what drew our editorial board’s attention for this issue was their private dining room.

Essentially an event space, the private dining room flanks the side of the retail shop on the corner of Nashville Avenue and Magazine Street. More man-cave than swanky dining room, there’s nothing lowbrow about the food; the provenance of Rare Cuts’ meat is well established and their sides are first-class. The purebred Angus beef is all vegetarian-fed with no hormones, steroids or antibiotics. Peruse their cases for the cut that tempts you most; their dry-aged porterhouse is proof of a loving god. Menus are customized in advance, either through personal consultation or by using the interactive form on their website. The more elaborate ones get some assistance from chef Gason Nelson who has served for personal chef for both Reggie Bush and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

In a sense, renting the room means renting the shop. Dinners take place after-hours, and guests have the opportunity to browse the cases for their selection. The room can seat 20 people, but larger parties can be accommodated as well. “We’ve done 35 seated using the front of the retail area, and done 50 cocktail-style,” says owner Henry Albert. It draws an eclectic, fun-loving clientele, including steak lovers seeking a space for rehearsal dinners, wine pairings, bachelor parties and college and professional football games. It has also attracted romantically inclined meat lovers. “We did a fifth anniversary for just one couple who rented the whole place out just for themselves,” Albert says.

Even without the additional courses, coordinating 18 or so steaks to varying temperatures for a single seating out of a small kitchen is no small task. Albert gets some high-tech assistance from a pair of thermal circulators, one of which heats the meat gently to 130 degrees for rare to medium-rare and the other one to 140 degrees for medium and medium well steaks, cooking the sous vide. The steaks are then seared over natural charcoal on Albert’s Big Green Egg. “I do it that way here because that’s how I do it at home,” Albert says. “Here, it is all about the steak. That is what we really want to shine.” 

– J.F.

Rare Cuts, 810 Nashville Ave., 267-4687, RareCuts.com

Burger Restaurant of the Year
The Company Burger

This new burger joint leads the pack. The patties are made from Harris Ranch beef, are ground daily and are served on buttered, toasted, locally baked buns. The assortment of mayonnaises is made in-house, and a high-to-low list of beers and cocktails will keep adults happy. Go early to avoid the rush.

– J.F.

The Company Burger, 4600 Freret St., 267-0320, TheCompanyBurger.com

Pizza Restaurant of the Year
Ancora

Multiple high-end pizza restaurants have opened in New Orleans over the last few years. In 2011, no place did it better than Ancora, the partnership between chefs Adolfo Garcia and Jeff Talbot. Neapolitan pizza is the thing at Ancora, and the massive pizza oven that dominates the kitchen was imported from the region. The pies that come out of that oven are some of the best we’ve tasted.

– Robert Peyton

Ancora, 4508 Freret St., 324-1636, AncoraNola.com

Oyster Bar of the Year
Dickie Brennans Bourbon House

“It’s sort of a selfish pursuit,” Dickie Brennan, owner of Bourbon House, says. “I like to eat oysters every day, so I am very focused on getting the freshest local Gulf products I can.” Bourbon House serves oysters in a variety of ways, and they have found that local caviar on top of the raw oysters is a special treat. They feature this presentation every day during happy hour with special prices on oysters topped with local choupic caviar. 

– T.M.

Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House, 144 Bourbon St., 522-0111, BourbonHouse.com

Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year
Katie's Restaurant and Bar

On March 1, 2010, Katie’s Restaurant and Bar in Mid-City, run by partners Katherine d’Aquin and Scot Craig, reopened to an appreciative neighborhood and city. The menu has been upgraded. There is now a Brooklyn-style pizza oven, and the place is humming. D’Aquin and Craig are committed to buying from local vendors whenever they can. They serve Sunday brunch with bottomless mimosas. In truth, Katie’s has never been better.  

– T.M.

Katie’s Restaurant and Bar, 3701 Iberville St., 488-658, KatiesInMidCity.com

Middle Eastern Restaurant of the Year
Courtyard Grill

Turkish cuisine combines aspects of the food of its Persian, Greek and Arabic neighbors while retaining a distinct identity. Here you can find familiar dishes, but the reason we’re naming it the Middle Eastern Restaurant of the Year are its Turkish dishes, such as chachik – which combines thick yogurt, cucumber, mint and garlic in a soothing dip – and the dish of thinly sliced lamb and beef served over house-made cubes of leavened bread topped with a tomato-butter sauce, called Iskandar Kabob. 

– R.P.

Courtyard Grill, 4430 Magazine St., 875-4164, CourtyardGrillNola.com

Specialty Restaurant of the Year
Cafe Abyssinia

This new Ethiopian restaurant offers local diners an array of dishes not seen anywhere else in the city. While there are other North African restaurants, this is the only one that serves authentic Eritrean stews such as Yemisr Wot, served family-style with injera, a spongy flatbread. BYOB or try their exotic clove-spiced tea.

– J.F.

Café Abyssinia, 3511 Magazine St., 894-6238, CafeAbyssinia.com

In Memoriam
Johnny Mosca
The Passing of Friends and Legends

This past year we lost two talents in our dining community. It is never easy to say good-bye, and yet through their lives’ works, they never actually leave us. We can continue to enjoy what they have created, not to mention treasuring the savory memories of good times and exceptional meals past.

After being wounded in the Italian campaign of World War II, Mosca was sent to serve with the British forces and, because of his restaurant experience, he was placed into food-service. He served General Dwight Eisenhower, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and even Josep Tito, who at the time was the leader of the Yugoslavian Resistance Movement.

When he returned to the States, he headed to New Orleans. His parents moved there and opened a restaurant that proudly displayed the family name, just like the one where he grew up in Chicago Heights, Ill. He brought with him his wife, Mary Jo, also from Chicago.

For the next 65 years this was his life: providing grand yet simple dishes to a loyal clientele. Mention the names of Oysters Mosca or Chicken à la Grande to any New Orleanian and watch their eyes roll with the lovely memory of prior visits to the unassuming roadhouse. 

Angel Carballo Miranda

Most diners at Lola’s Restaurant in Faubourg St. John didn’t even know his last name. To them, he was “Angel,” just as the restaurant had only one name, given by Miranda to honor his mother.

Lola’s defines Spanish cuisine in our town. It serves outstanding gazpacho, beautiful ceviche, paellas and fideuas that rival restaurants in Madrid, a great, winter-perfect caldereta (lamb stew) and top-quality fish dishes incorporating calamari, tuna and rainbow trout.

The lines queue up every night, outside in the elements, a testament to Miranda’s talents and his dedication to his native Seville. He brought the tastes and smells of the restaurants of that great city to this one, humbly. 

– T.M.
 

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