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Best of Dining

Our Annual Buffet of Top People and Places

(page 2 of 3)


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.


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.


Honor Roll
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.


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.

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