Best of Dining
Our Annual Buffet of Top People and Places
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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
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
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
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