Best of Dining 2013

In which we select the tops, without reservations

Chef of the Year Michael Stoltzfus

Greg Miles Photograph

For the most part 2013 was a great year for dining, though there was bad news, or at least challenges, for some of the city’s venerable institutions. The worst news was the closing of Brennan’s, long one of the city’s top white tablecloth restaurants. The sudden shutdown had more to do with family internal disputes than with performance from the kitchen, which was still cranking out great dishes. (Indications are that a different restaurant, though under the same family, will open at the Royal Street location in the spring.)

Over at the Roosevelt Hotel the once elegant Sazerac restaurant was closed to make room for a return of the Fountain Lounge and a more casual setting.

For a while it looked like Tujague’s might be lost forever but there was a happy ending as the late owner Steven Latter’s son, Mark, took over. Broussard’s, another grand resultant changed hands. We will miss Gunther Preuss in the kitchen and be eager to watch if the new owners can maintain the same grandeur.

Beyond those places most of the restaurant news was about start-ups or existing places, many of which were not around a decade ago, if that long, getting better. Thus we present out annual Best of Dining issue as a way of keeping track of who is serving whom, who is in the kitchen and who is stirring up not just sauce but excitement.

Selections were made by our trio of restaurant writers plus the editorial staff. With so much to choose from, making the choices was challenging. Even more challenging is that 2013 looks like it will be an even bigger year. Maybe we will have to choose over brunch at whatever Brennan’s becomes.


CHEF OF THE YEAR

Michael Stoltzfus

Charting his own path

The danger with becoming a successful chef, if you love to prepare food, is that you tend to spend more of your time managing other cooks than cooking. Chef Michael Stoltzfus told me that when he was faced with that problem recently, it led him to start doing something he hadn’t before. He began saying “no.”

Stoltzfus opened his first restaurant, Coquette, in 2008, and ever since, he’s steadily been accumulating both praise and employees. From a starting staff of nine, including only three in the kitchen, Coquette now employs 40. He has been nominated for Best Chef, South by the James Beard Foundation and named a Star Chef by Food & Wine Magazine, among other accolades. With the attention came requests to participate in all manner of projects, and for a while Stoltzfus accepted pretty much everything. It kept him away from Coquette, and ultimately he decided to be more selective.

That is a choice that benefits diners in New Orleans, because while Stoltzfus has always been technically proficient, he’s grown into an imaginative cook as well. The more time he’s in the kitchen, the better for those of us who love how he and Coquette have developed over the last five years.

Stoltzfus told me that when he opened Coquette, he was still cooking the food of the restaurants where he’d trained, and still looking at cookbooks for inspiration. When I reviewed the restaurant in 2010, one of the standout dishes was fried shrimp with citrus and olives. It was a fantastic dish and I’d be happy to eat it again, but at the time I wrote it reminded me of something I’d see at John Besh’s August. That is hardly a criticism, but these days, Stoltzfus and his staff – particularly chef de cuisine Mason Hereford – are charting their own path.
There are a bunch of other things Stoltzfus has prepared that stick in my mind, but when I talked to him in preparation for writing this article the first one I brought up was a dish that earned him an award at a StarChefs event in April 2012. He agreed that the market vegetable salad, which is on Coquette’s menu to this day, exemplifies the restaurant’s style.
In the dish, Stoltzfus takes seasonal vegetables and prepares them fairly simply. The only thing on the plate that’s obviously complicated are the little mounds of granular olive “praline” that most diners mistake for bacon. Everything else at least appears to be cooked simply – poached, pickled or roasted, for example – but perfectly executed in each case. What makes the dish great is the way the individual elements complement each other. What marks Stoltzfus as a great chef is that he pulls this feat off over and over, despite changing the ingredients on a fairly regular basis depending on what vegetables are available.

The market vegetable salad also illustrates something more subtle about Stoltzfus; a lot of chefs talk about how “ingredient-driven” they are and tout their “rustic” food. There is nothing wrong with either concept, but on occasion one gets the sense that the terms are code-words for “I don’t have the training to do anything else.” Stoltzfus didn’t attend culinary school; he learned by doing, but there’s no lack of technique in his food and no better evidence that he knows what he’s doing than that salad. In addition to the variety of methods used to cook the half-dozen individual vegetables on any given plate, Stoltzfus prepares a cashew nut purée as the base of the dish. The aforementioned dehydrated olive “praline” powder is evidence that he can go the molecular gastronomy route when called upon as well.

You can detect some element of Southern cooking in a lot of his food: butternut squash cavatelli with fried chicken and maple brings to mind chicken and waffles, and soft-shell crab with tomato, bacon and sweet corn couldn’t be much more emblematic of the region. It isn’t an obvious influence in everything he puts on the plate, and honestly by the time you read this he may have changed the menu so dramatically that everything I’ve mentioned (apart from the market vegetable salad) is no longer available. As long as Coquette keeps putting out such consistently excellent food, that’s just fine.

What I’m saying is that Stoltzfus can cook, and more than that he’s got a passion both for the process and for trying new things. I remember tasting grilled lamb heart a couple of years ago, and then discussing it with him shortly thereafter; he was clearly enthusiastic about the dish, and about how else he might use the ingredient and other less-used parts of the whole lambs he’d been getting from a local purveyor. It is the same sort of thing that resulted in a huge barbecue rig being parked outside of the restaurant, and the start of a garden in the restaurant’s small rear patio where Stoltzfus was, when I last checked, just starting to try his hand at agriculture with help from other members of his staff. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a month or three, the menu lists “our backyard” as the source of a few ingredients.

When I began this piece, I said chef Stoltzfus has started saying “no” to requests that take him out of Coquette, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped altogether. I know this first-hand, as I solicited him to cook at the Justice for All Ball, a fundraiser for the New Orleans Pro Bono Project that’s held each fall. As I write, but before this article will reach you, he’s also scheduled to cook at City Grit in New York.  – Robert Peyton

Coquette, 2800 Magazine St., 265-0421, CoquetteNola.com


RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR


Greg Miles Photograph

Dominique’s on Magazine

Making a grander statement

For the latest iteration of his namesake restaurant, chef Dominique Macquet partnered with Mike Schexnayder to reinvent a former firehouse on Magazine Street. When the doors opened in early March 2013 following its 18-month renovation, it offered far more seating, parking and versatility than his prior location in a Creole cottage a few blocks away. More to the point, it made a statement. From the exterior, its symmetrically minimalist façade draws the eye while honoring the building’s original purpose. From within, the soaring ceilings and blown-out main dining room is softened by German white oak flooring, lighting design by Julie Neill and striking projection art installations by Courtney Eagan. The upper floor offers a second large dining room, a private 30-seat chef’s Signature Room and a separate kitchen for the in-house cheese, dessert and bread programs. All of this, along with Macquet’s nationally acclaimed cuisine, makes Dominique’s on Magazine our pick for Restaurant of the Year.

“We outgrew the first location in about three months,” Macquet explains. “My new partner Mike (Schexnayder) and I approached this project in a much different way.” In the process, Macquet essentially quadrupled his capacity, leveling up to 200 seats. The result is a space tailored to hosting larger groups and private events, as well as comfortably accommodating traditional daily demands.

Along with Schexnayder, Macquet’s wife Wendy plays a big role in the new location. “Wendy had a lot to do with the architecture, the decorating and the design,” Macquet says. In terms of operations, veteran event planner Wendy handles the booking for private events. Along with parties for big-name clients such as Adrien Brody and Harley-Davidson, they also hold fundraisers for charitable causes on a regular basis, including a monthly dinner for Macquet’s former Chef de Cuisine Quan Tran, who’s battling cancer.

Among the interesting features of his new restaurant are the herb gardens in the rear courtyards. During the design process, it occurred to Macquet that vertical herb gardens could double as art and landscape installations. “Instead of having artwork out there, I said ‘Why don’t we use vertical herb gardens and I can use the herbs in the kitchen and also the bar program?’” Hydroponic herb pillars by local startup VertiFarms punctuate the smaller courtyard in the far back, while vertical wall gardens grace the larger courtyard immediately behind the main dining room. “We grow five kinds of basil, as well as rosemary, oregano and chives,” Macquet says. Potted kaffir lime trees and a multitude of fiery peppers (scotch bonnet and ghost among them) are a few more of the offerings grown on site.

Macquet, originally from the Indian Ocean colonial enclave French Mauritius, describes his cuisine as locally influenced contemporary French. Rather than butter and cream, he reaches for juices and oils to help bring out the inherent qualities and flavors of his ingredients. For example, in his remoulade sauce he uses oven-dried tomatoes in lieu of the usual ketchup, which contributes a genuine, far deeper tomato taste, as well as dollop of mint oil that makes it pop. These are small adjustments but they make a big difference in preparations often regarded as codified.

Another instance of this approach can be seen in his sautéed yellowtail entrée, which is accompanied by a lime and scotch bonnet pepper mojo sauce. To make it, he deglazes the pan with lime juice and uses oil rather than butter to emulsify the fond. “The lime juice helps to hold the flavors, kind of like with a beurre blanc,” he explains. “The scotch bonnet peppers add a little kick.” Rounding out the dish is an excellent side of saffron rice, punched up with fresh herbs from his gardens.

For his lobster salad, Macquet uses knuckle and claw meat. It is served with blanched celery root and shaved fennel, traditional enough flavors whose subtlety complements the natural sweetness of the lobster. Then it gets finished with kaffir lime oil and plated atop basil aioli from his garden, touches that make the dish his own.

One of his more enticing winter dishes is his entrée of lamb belly, inspired by the spit-roasted lamb served at the New Orleans Greek Festival. “We cure the lamb belly with thyme and garlic overnight. The next day we confit it in lamb fat for about four hours,” he says. It is portioned and then seared to order in a cast iron skillet for service.

Macquet’s menu is also grounded with earthier fare, like his Wagyu beef meatballs, a dish inspired by a late-night channel surfing session. “The Godfather was on and it was that scene where they were all eating spaghetti and meatballs. And I said to Wendy, ‘I’m going to make that for the restaurant.’ She told me, ‘You have too much of a big ego, you’re not going to make that – too lowbrow.’” But he went ahead with his plan; the next night a critic came in and gave the dish a rave review, and its been on the menu ever since.

From his auxiliary kitchen upstairs, Macquet turns out French baguettes and pain d’épices, a molasses and clove-scented spice bread that gets paired with seared foie gras and poached cherries. Some of the gear his staff has to play with up there includes a Pacojet, an ultra-fast food processer that’s great for making ice cream and mousses. A few of the desserts are sweetened with local beekeeper (and New Orleans Magazine’s health columnist) Dr. Brobson Lutz’s “Honey from the Hood.” Finally, in what has become something of Macquet’s hallmark denouement, a cotton candy machine spins out a light-hearted endnote of green apple spun sugar. – Jay Forman

Dominique’s on Magazine, 4213 Magazine St., 891-9282, DominiquesOnMag.com


RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEAR


Greg Miles Photograph

Dickie Brennan

Restaurateur with a passion

He is in love with his family, happily recalling almost every moment of his childhood and young adulthood in the most glowing terms imaginable. He is, self-admittedly, the luckiest guy in every room he inhabits. He is in love with his profession. He loves creating and presenting cuisines that make his patrons and friends gush with praise. But mostly, he’s in love with his hometown. Since Dickie Brennan is New Orleans through and through, he’s never far from a New Orleans thought.

Brennan had the good fortune to grow up in a famous family that never thought of themselves as famous. They were simply Aunt Adelaide, Aunt Ella, Daddy Dick, Paul Prudhomme, Frank Brigtsen, Truman Capote and Arnold Palmer, among many names with whom we’re all familiar but don’t know.

From De La Salle High School to Louisiana State University, Brennan worked in the kitchens of the family’s restaurants. He even removed paint and years of detritus from the awning over the main door at the then soon-to-open Mr. B’s. He found that the awnings were actually copper – no one knew.

LSU was OK, but he wanted to get back home before his senior year. Loyola University was the school of choice and finance was the major. He was back in New Orleans, working part-time at Commander’s Palace and enjoying breakfast at Aunt Adelaide’s home at Second and Prytania streets.

“Commander’s Palace in those days was struggling. We wanted to do something to attract more diners,” Brennan recalls. “And we didn’t want to conflict with Breakfast at Brennan’s, but we knew how to do that. So Dad (Dick) thought about staging a Sunday Jazz Brunch.”

They printed some flyers and had Brennan and his sister, Lauren, deliver flyers around the French Quarter and Garden District announcing the inauguration of the event in 1975. When asked by his dad how many people would likely show up, Brennan said, “maybe 100.”

Dick said, “100? That would be fantastic.” The first Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace attracted 200 patrons, and the doors had to be closed as those fortunate souls who were present didn’t want to leave.   

Redfish was abundant and was considered a very versatile food item by the restaurant. But no one really wanted to eat the fish. The Brennans and their chef, Paul Prudhomme, decided to “Cajun-up” the dish with a bit of pepper and other spices sprinkled on the beautiful white meat. Blackened Redfish was born.

Those are the sorts of creations, among others, that the Brennan family invented. We just take it for granted that Jazz Brunches and Blackened Redfish have always been with us.

Dickie Brennan is the only member of the Brennan family who served in the capacity of Executive Chef, which he did at Palace Café. He is very aware about the importance of obtaining the proper raw ingredients, combining them to reflect the culinary history of our region and presenting them in an exciting fashion.

Brennan is incredibly committed to local ingredients. “I don’t understand when you live here, in the center of one of the great fishing and agricultural locations on earth, why you would feel the need to bring in product from a great distance. We have all manner of fish, crops, fruits, meats, nuts, dairy and sweet ingredients. They are all here, and we know that staying local means better, fresher results from the kitchen.”

Brennan’s passion even extends to our buildings. He and his family beautifully reclaimed the Werlein’s for Music building on Canal Street for Palace Café, a true New Orleans bistro. They brought back the corner of Royal and Iberville streets from a hodge-podge of seedy clubs and bars to emerge as Mr. B’s.

He enriched the corner of Bourbon and Iberville streets, bringing the excitement and energy of the street into the restaurant with floor-to-second story ceiling windows at Bourbon House. He took a piece of a parking garage and made it into one of the premier steak houses in town with Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.

And in his latest commitment, he and his organization provided the shuttered Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré with an important revenue stream, and in the process opened up a beautiful new restaurant, Tableau.

Serving excellent dining experiences, being a 24-hour ambassador for our community, generously supporting quality of life issues and preserving our history and culture are not the only reasons we’re honoring our Restaurateur of the Year, Dickie Brennan. It is also true that everything he touches is done with love. – Tim McNally

Bourbon House, 144 Bourbon St., 522-0111, BourbonHouse.com
Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, 716 Iberville St., 522-2467, DickieBrennansSteakhouse.com
Palace Café, 605 Canal St., 523-1661, PalaceCafe.com
Tableau, 616 St. Peter St., 934-3463, TableauFrenchQuarter.com


HONOR ROLL


Greg Miles Photograph

Mr. Ed’s

Succeeding with what you do best

Ed McIntyre grew up around New Orleans cuisine. His stepdad, the late Bob “Smoky” Curry, and his mom operated the now long-closed The Smokehouse on Canal Boulevard. He was given a break into the business with a job at Louisiana Purchase as a busboy, working his way up to a dishwasher. Eventually he was at the stove, cooking the dishes he knew so well from his childhood.

“The Major family, who began the concept of Louisiana Purchase, was very kind to me and taught me so much about this business,” McIntyre proudly says.

In 1989, McIntyre opened Mr. Ed’s Deli on Veterans Boulevard. The next year he opened Mr. Ed’s on Live Oak Street in Bucktown and from there has opened and operated 14 restaurants.
Mr. Ed’s has been serving classic New Orleans dishes ever since the doors opened, and was such a big fan of his momma’s cooking that he asked her to take part in Mr. Ed’s. She works at the podium, greeting guests, but McIntyre knows she’s keeping an eye on what comes out of the kitchen. There is nothing like having your mother in guest relations and quality assurance. “These are the dishes I’ve eaten all of my life. The white beans, the red beans, stuffed mirlitons, trout, fried chicken, gumbo, remoulade – oh man, I could go on,” he says. “My mother and my grandmother could do them all so well. I love that stuff, always have, and I just felt I wasn’t alone in my appreciation of those dishes.”

From the beginning, Mr. Ed’s has been a New Orleans bistro. Yes, there are tablecloths and linen napkins, but then there are big iceberg lettuce salads slathered in thousand-island dressing, crackers with butter, fried shrimp with fries, hot sauce on every table, poor boys, a full bar, local beers on tap, veal Parmesan, grilled pork chops, cheese fries, turtle soup, shrimp cocktail, eggplant sticks, fried calamari and so much more.

There is no definitive type of cuisine here. The marinara sauce, originally from Italy and Sicily, is a bit sweeter and a little spicier here. Fresh fish is lightly fried, as well as baked. The French-based sauces of New Orleans tend to be heavier than the true style still served in France or anywhere else.

McIntyre has no problem being a “Keeper of the New Orleans Flame.” His family-oriented restaurant boasts a comfortable and unpretentious décor. His location, tucked into a residential area of Bucktown, doesn’t shout “cutting-edge.” Comfortable surroundings in which comfort foods take center stage were always his goal.

“This is the sort of place that’s simply not seen in most of America anymore. We aren’t a chain. We aren’t slick in any way. Whether you grew up in New Orleans or not, this is a place that will not overwhelm you,” he says. “We are here every day, along with a long-time clientele, to actually savor the foods of the past. To us, they aren’t tired or out of style. They remind us of how lucky we all are to be here.”

Which is why the basic direction of Mr. Ed’s is never altered. It is today what it opened up to be in 1990. “We always ate dinner together, almost every night, at home. It’s the feeling and the experience I want to recreate for my patrons, most of whom are my friends,” he says.

Along with Mr. Ed’s, there are other restaurants of note at which you’re likely to see McIntyre because they belong to him. Austin’s, a more upscale steak-based fine dining restaurant, voted Favorite Steakhouse by New Orleans Magazine in 2011; and Cheeseburger Eddies, an order-at-the-counter burger place, both in Metairie. Then there’s a Mr. Ed’s in Kenner, smaller but with essentially the same menu as its namesake in Bucktown.

The latest addition to the family is the iconic Bozo’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Metairie, now renamed Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar and Fish House. McIntyre and Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich have a warm and long friendship. When Vodanovich recently decided to close Bozo’s, his heart just couldn’t let him walk away and allow the restaurant to pass from the scene. McIntyre came forward, freshened the interior, added a few oyster dishes – such as grilled oysters – and welcomed back Vodanovich, who happily comes in to sit at the bar, enjoys oysters and sees his many old friends.

Vodanovich says, “I can’t think of anyone I would more want to continue our family’s 85-year tradition than Ed and his family.”
Neither can we, Chris. Neither can we.  – T.m.

Mr. Ed’s, 1001 Live Oak St., Metairie, 838-0022, AustinsNo.com/MrEdsBucktown.html


MIXOLOGIST OF THE YEAR


Greg Miles Photograph

Steven Lemley, Jr.

Finding the muse

 

Sometimes the acorn really does fall far from the tree. In this case, about 350 miles in distance and much further than that philosophically.

Steven Lemley Jr. grew up outside of Bossier City, La. He graduated from high school early. The University of New Orleans took note and offered him an academic scholarship; Lemley decided that pre-med was a path of interest and soon also pursued international studies.

To earn extra money while at UNO, Lemley worked in retail. He loved the customer interaction, helping people find what they wanted and even suggesting items that they hadn’t considered but were likely to enjoy.

A friend of his worked at the Chartres House Café and one Mardi Gras season they were quite shorthanded. He asked Lemley if he had any interest in climbing behind the bar and helping out.

Lemley absolutely loved the experience of being around fun people enjoying themselves who were depending on him to keep the party going. But for him it went deeper than that. “I was amazed at all the chemistry that went into the construction of a good drink. Every ingredient had to bring something to the mix, and every ‘something’ had to remain in balance,” Lemley reflects.

When he first surveyed the breadth of product in bottles sitting on the back of the bar he wasn’t intimidated, he was jazzed. All of those pretty toys in pretty packages caused the wheels in his head to turn even faster, and soon Lemley was creating new concoctions and tinctures at his home on his own time.

“The bar wasn’t really committed to using fresh juices, or to developing its own infusions, so I did those at my house and brought them to work. Once I started the research and the chemistry, I couldn’t stop,” Lemley says. “Some of my friends noted it was ‘out of control,’ but I loved it.”

There were several aspects to the job that provided impetus to his newfound passion. He liked serving people. He enjoyed the response he received from them when he prepared a drink to their satisfaction. He also loved suggesting new beverages for his customers. If they liked such-and-such, then he thought they would appreciate a different, but similar, beverage. And he was happy to open their minds to new experiences.

Lemley also liked the chemistry of what he was creating. “To take dissimilar liquids and bring them together in a pleasant manner is actually its own reward,” he says. “I like the combination of sweet, savory, sour, maybe even bits of fruit or herbs, and bringing about an enjoyable result. Balance is the achievable goal with everything I do.”

Cheryl Charming, noted New Orleans mixologist and author, recognized the talent and the passion of this young man and offered him a position at Bombay Club. The late Richard Fiske, proprietor of Bombay, gave him free rein to create new drinks, but also insisted that he adhere to proven recipes demanded by the club’s clientele. “Working for those people in that environment sealed the deal for me,” Lemley says. “If I ever wavered about this activity, I was no longer questioning. I was heart and soul a mixologist.”

There was really only one other hurdle to Lemley fully accepting his new career: Mom. Given his success in school, there were high expectations and a certain belief regarding Lemley’s commitment as to what the family envisioned he could achieve – until one particular visit to New Orleans.

Lemley was to be featured in a video a leading gin distiller was producing to be shown around the world. His mom was in town and he invited her to the filming. She walked in to see her boy bathed in bright lights, the focus of attention, watching the cameras preparing to roll and a full production crew assuring that he was satisfied with the set-up. This was something she never expected: her lad at the center of what the fuss was all about.

And just like that, being a budding mixologist, hailing from north Louisiana and making a mark in New Orleans wasn’t only fine, but was cause for telling all of her friends how successful young Steven was. He had made Mom proud.

Besides creating balance in a mixed drink, providing good companionship, possessing a strong desire to please and discovering still emerging talents, making Mom proud is way up there for reasons to recognize Steven Lemley Jr. as New Orleans Magazine’s Mixologist of the Year. – T.m.

Bourbon “O” Bar, Bourbon Orleans Hotel, 717 Orleans St., 523-2222, BourbonOrleans.com


UNDER THE RADAR


Greg Miles Photograph

Sainte Marie Brasserie

Fine dining with a down to earth touch

Sainte Marie Brasserie opened with a big media push back in 2010. Yet despite its striking build-out in the 930 Poydras St. building and a savvy ownership group with experience in melding bars with fine dining, the restaurant lacked a coherent identity. Was it a gastropub? Traditional brasserie? Quick-turn business lunch? It had the right pieces to play with but they just didn’t fit together.

Not helping things was a revolving door of chefs. The last tragedy to befall them was the loss of promising talent Ngoc Nguyen, who died of a heart attack at 33 in January 2013. It was into this vacuum that Kristen Essig stepped, and it’s her vitality that has energized Sainte Marie. The puzzle has been put together now, and for this reason we’ve awarded it this year’s Under the Radar Award.

It was a circuitous route that led Essig to Sainte Marie. After building a skill set in New Orleans fine dining at such places as Emeril’s, Peristyle and Bayona pre-Katrina, she switched gears to work as a private chef and manage the Crescent City Farmers Markets; but eventually the itch to get back to her roots returned. “It got to the point where I really missed the camaraderie of the kitchen,” Essig says.

It was a chance encounter that led to Sainte Marie. Essig bumped into chef Alex Harrell of Sylvain with whom she had previously worked at Bayona. Essig mentioned she was ready to “do the next thing,” and a few weeks later Harrell called saying that Sainte Marie was looking for a new chef. “The way it fell together was very organic,” Essig recalls.

When Essig stepped into the role, the first thing she did was upgrade the sourcing and quality of the ingredients. She bought local when she could, drawing on her network of purveyors established from her experience with the farmers markets. And even by today’s locavore-obsessed standards, Sainte Marie’s list of partners is vast, encompassing all facets of the menu. Mauthes Dairy, Bellegarde Bakery and Local Boy Farms are represented, along with bigger names such as Covey Rise and Chappapeela Farms.

Essig’s style is therefore ingredient driven, and she’s fond of bright notes and fresh flavors – mint and lemon zest, for example, along with fruit used in savory roles. The tomato-mint broth with her mushroom agnolotti highlights this approach. “The mint just brightens everything up about that dish,” she says.

Essig also taps into second-line culture with ya ka mein, the beloved hangover-cure egg noodle and broth dish. It started as family meal, brought in by her colleague Samantha Massey. “Sam would heat it up and we would all just sort of crowd around and say, ‘Yeah, we need some of that,’” Essig says. She liked it so much she rolled it out onto the regular menu, giving it a bit of a twist with using fresh ramen noodles from Hong Kong Food Market.

Essig provides a down-to-earth approach to fine dining. Her main motivation is that food should be fun, enjoyable and something that brings people together. And while the restaurant’s full name is Sainte Marie Brasserie, truthfully it isn’t truly traditional brasserie fare. Sure, you can find a good hanger steak with requisite frites, but not too many Frenchmen will plate up Louisiana shrimp and grits with tasso in an Abita beer broth, or a quinoa and crabmeat salad with smoked goat cheese and niçoise olives. There are also pronounced elements of southern cuisine (pepper jelly glazed pork chop, for example) and even the old school standards like steamed mussels pick up some international flourish from the use of white miso in the broth. Her grilled duck with crackling and a honey-hazelnut demi-glace hits all the comfort notes for cold weather.

Essig often runs dinner specials partnering with purveyors or other aspects attenuated to New Orleans life. One of the more creative is a proposed informal food and music mash-up tentatively scheduled for the New Year. Murf Reeves, Sainte Marie’s bartender and general manager, also hosts a show on WWOZ, and the idea is to pair food and cocktails with a local artist who will also perform a short set. “It will be like music in edible form. I am super excited about that,” Essig says.

Going into winter, look for new items to roll onto the menu, including a beef tartare recently featured as a special for her Bayou Teche dinner. Made with a chipotle marinade then tossed with cocoa nib, it becomes a fun play on a mole. And while Sainte Marie is typically closed on Sundays, they open their doors for Saints home games and feature a pared down game-day menu with twists such as drumettes cooked in duck fat and tossed with a Thai chili-garlic sauce. – J.F.


CONCEPT OF THE YEAR


Greg Miles Photograph

Peche Seafood Grill

Other Fish in the Sea; and Ways to Cook Them

Pêche means “fishing” in French, but change the spelling to péché and it’s “sin.” In the case of the restaurant on Magazine Street opened earlier this year by chefs Ryan Prewitt, Stephen Stryjewski and Donald Link, the former is what’s intended, but you have to admit that both meanings are apt for a restaurant in New Orleans.

Pêche was conceived as a seafood restaurant, but after the chefs spent time in Uruguay and Spain, they knew that a wood-burning grill had to be a feature as well. Factor in a raw bar and a serious drinks program and you get one of the most interesting restaurants to open in New Orleans in quite some time. It isn’t as though the place is immune to trends – there are small plates and bar food on the menu – but there aren’t a lot of other places doing whole fish on a wood-burning grill (redfish with salsa verde and American snapper with Meyer lemon on my last visit) and certainly none where the fish changes with such frequency that they print an insert daily. That insert also lists the oysters they have available and what they’re doing in the way of raw fish.

There are always a few other items available on the raw side – a seafood salad, crab claws with chile and mint and a seafood platter, for example  and highlights from the “snacks” menu include a smoked tuna dip served with saltines, hush puppies and fried bread with sea salt that’s completely addictive.

Three talented chefs means there’s a good bit of diversity to the menu, but it comes together. You can see a bit of Cochon in dishes like the crab and eggplant gratin, grilled chicken with white barbecue sauce, smothered catfish and squash or bacon and rice casserole; and you get a sense of Herbsaint when you taste the capellini with crabmeat and chiles, the seafood gumbo or the grilled skirt steak with salsa verde. Then there are things like the catfish with pickled greens and chili broth or the baked drum with ginger, tomato and crispy rice that don’t really have a recognizable antecedent from the chefs’ other restaurants, and of course the whole grilled fish, which is more or less sui generis. The whole fish and the 22-ounce rib-eye are designed to be shared by at least two diners. That approach works perfectly when you add a couple of appetizers and you get to choose from side dishes such as brabant potatoes, grilled eggplant with chiles and garlic or white beans with bacon.


Chef Ryan Prewitt

Greg Miles Photograph

A few months ago I ran into chef Link while I was eating at Pêche. Link (and this is true of Stryjewski and Prewitt for that matter) is the kind of guy who lights up when he’s talking about food. What I remember most about that conversation was the way he described the Royal Red shrimp. He is fond of them, and justifiably so; they’re large, sweet-salty things that are cooked in a little butter but otherwise basically un-seasoned. They are the perfect example of what ingredient-driven cooking should be – not an excuse for a lack of technique, but the recognition that some things are best enjoyed simply.  

The restaurant is housed in a newly and extensively renovated space located at 800 Magazine St. The oddly small entrance is located between the bar and the long, open dining room, with the raw bar and kitchen at the other end. The bar is roomy and was clearly designed to house the overflow crowds the place generates on a regular basis. Ample glass on the Magazine Street side lets in a lot of light, and similar to the layout at Cochon, a few communal tables are available for larger parties.

Speaking of the bar, it hasn’t been ignored at Pêche. Craft cocktails are de rigeur at any restaurant with ambition these days, and Pêche doesn’t disappoint. The selection changes, but the Hemingway is one of the standards; it’s composed of Hendrick’s gin, maraschino liqueur, muddled cucumber and grapefruit and lime juices, and it’s delicious. The 3rd Ward Zombie pairs Barbancourt 8 year old and Goslings dark rum with Nocello, pineapple and lime juices; it’s also pretty damn good, if a little on the strong side.

Pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman handles the desserts, and she has a little more room to work at Pêche than at Cochon, where things are a bit more rustic generally. Peach-almond crisp with cinnamon ice cream, pistachio-crusted blueberry tart with a chantilly cream made from local honey and flourless chocolate cake with mint chocolate chip sherbet are the sorts of things you can expect, each with a suggested pairing of a liqueur or cordial that, in my experience, is spot-on. – R.P.

Pêche Seafood Grill, 800 Magazine St., 522-1744, PecheRestaurant.com


RESURGING IDEAS


La Cocinita Food Truck

Greg Miles Photograph

► A food truck on every block

If the three most important rules of business success are “location, location, location,” then the food trucks of New Orleans have the landscape well covered.

Food trucks have been around almost since the founding of the city in the form of carts, and have captured the “flavors” of New Orleans. Their diversity of product offerings, their fun atmosphere and their ability to set up where they’re wanted (except the French Quarter and certain parts of the CBD) have never been misunderstood by local foodies; they aren’t a substitute for dining in restaurants, but rather have become an adjunct to the local quest for fine and interesting cuisine under all sorts of circumstances.

The path hasn’t always been smooth, nor – and I cannot resist this comment – have the roads. New Orleans City Ordinances regarding food service and restaurants are quite stringent and well defined. But in June of this year, the City Council, with considerable community and industry input, modernized the criteria that allowed the food truck craze to continue and expand. Better flexibility was enacted, which, in effect, took into consideration the realities of food truck operations and locations. The Council properly considered the rights of all parties and the desires of the populace. An excellent compromise was achieved.

In a town literally littered with amazing dining opportunities, how does a food truck make an impact? Mostly it’s two things: 1) Serve items that are delicious and unique; 2) Be where the customers are, or can find you.

Some trucks actually have regular stops, and most will appear at frequently scheduled Food Truck Rallies or, and these outings are becoming particularly popular, the trucks appear at outdoor festivals, parties, family gatherings, corporate meetings, sports events and church functions. The longest surviving New Orleans food truck, the Roman Candy Wagon, has been roaming our streets since 1915, selling the sweet taffy sticks from the original still mule-drawn wagon that also serves as the manufacturing facility.  

Food truck licenses will expand to 100 in early 2014, so we can anticipate that this exciting concept will be more accessible. The website NolaFoodTrucks.com is operated by a coalition of a few trucks whose owners were instrumental in changing the city ordinances. – T.m.


A not-complete listing of just a few of the more popular food trucks:

Taceaux Loceaux. Tacos, of course, offering both meat and fish fillings
The Fat Falafel. Middle Eastern sandwiches, salads and tabbouleh
Empanada Intifada. Latin American empanadas, both meat and vegetarian
Que Crawl. Barbecue, Cajun and Creole meats, and vegetables
Frencheeeze Mobile Food Truck. Mostly sandwiches, hot and cold, with an extensive menu
La Cocinita. “Little Kitchen,” serving Latin American street food
Brigade Coffee. One of the most interestingly designed food trucks on the street serving really good coffee
Woody’s Fish Tacos. Fish and meat tacos, also cabbage slaw with remoulade
Big Cheesy. Sandwiches
Brazilian Barbecue. Not quite authentically Brazilian



Willie Mae’s Scotch House 

Greg Miles Photograph

► Fried chicken in every skillet

Given this city’s geographic location and our history of being involved with regional affairs, it’s interesting that New Orleans doesn’t act like or consider itself a “Southern city.” Tellingly, during this nation’s great war between ourselves, when the Union Army took New Orleans, no battle was staged. We were Creole, not southerners.

The ladies of New Orleans only became outraged toward the conquering army when their household valuables and family heirlooms, namely silverware, were confiscated for the Northern Cause. The local commanding Union General, Benjamin “Spoons” Butler, will never lose his nickname in our history. We were moved to action not by the ideology but by the methodology.
Yet, we don’t allow culinary opportunities to pass, and so we embrace the Southern food heritage. Creating and enjoying great fried chicken is every New Orleanian’s birthright, and the subject of debate and quest. The ultimate answer to, “Who makes the best fried chicken in town?” is your mama.

The concept of Popeyes Spicy Fried Chicken was born here and unloosed upon the world from our community. In the middle 1970s, Hart’s Kentucky Fried Chicken was an integral presence throughout the metro area. By the early ’80s, not a single location was still open, replaced by Popeyes and happily patronized by locals who soon enjoyed a location of their own in their neighborhood.

Pre-dating that seismic change, every faubourg’s family and casual dine-in restaurant was measured by the goodness of their gumbo and the perfection of their fried chicken.

The first measure of whether a place serves good fried chicken is that when you order, you’re told that preparation is going to be about 20 minutes. Secondly, is there a slice of slightly toasted white bread under the chicken when it arrives at your table? And then, upon arrival at your table, is the chicken almost too hot to pick up and eat?

Places that can do a platter of fried chicken to its southern and soul perfection are Liuzza’s on Bienville, Katie’s, Mr. Ed’s (also noted this year as the winner of New Orleans Magazine Honor Roll), Fury’s, Galatoire’s, Mandina’s, Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Lil Dizzy’s, Jacques-Imo’s, Dooky Chase’s (for both gumbo and fried chicken) and Dixie Chicken and Ribs in Lakeview.

If take-out is your preference, look to Chubbie’s, Chicken Sue’s, McHardy’s and the lone location of McKenzie’s Fried Chicken in Gentilly. – T.m.


Liuzza’s on Bienville, 3636 Bienville St., 482-9120
Katie’s, 3701 Iberville St., 488-6582
Mr. Ed’s, 1001 Live Oak St., Metairie, 838-0022
Fury’s, 724 Martin Behrman St., Metairie, 834-5646
Galatoire’s, 209 Bourbon St., 525-2021
Mandina’s, 3800 Canal St., 482-9179
Willie Mae’s Scotch House, 2401 St. Ann St., 822-9503
Lil Dizzy’s, 1500 Esplanade Ave., 569-8997
Jacques-Imo’s, 8324 Oak St., 861-0886
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, 2301 Orleans Ave., 821-0600
Dixie Chicken & Ribs, 6264 Argonne Blvd., 488-1377
Chubbie’s Fried Chicken, 4850 General Meyer Ave., 392-2377
Chicken Sue’s, 203 W. Harrison Ave., 371-5546
McHardy’s,1458 N. Broad St., 949-0000
McKenzie’s Chicken in a Box, 3839 Frenchmen St., 943-8908


TIKI RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR


Sara Essex Bradley Photographs

Cane and Table

The high drink-IQ guys behind Cure and so many other avant-garde cocktail destination bars have worked out a new concept, which includes food, through a try-it-out-first, “pop-up” path. They have come up with Cane & Table, a Tiki-culture, rum-driven establishment along a stretch of Decatur Street that was given up for lost. Their early success, and the efforts of teammate Adam Biderman of Company Burger who’s overseeing what comes out of the kitchen, bodes well for all of the moving parts: history, location, concept, staff, authenticity and execution. – T.M.

Cane & Table, 1113 Decatur St., 581-1112


BAKERY OF THE YEAR


Sara Essex Bradley Photographs

Gracious Bakery + Cafe

You can find excellent bread at Gracious, both loaves and holding together a focused list of delicious sandwiches, but Megan Roen Forman – who owns the shop with her husband Jay (yes, this magazine’s Jay Forman) cut her teeth as a pastry chef at Bayona and Sucré, among other places, and the muffins, cookies, croissants and other pastries – both sweet and savory – are the reason to visit Gracious. – R.P.

Gracious Bakery + Cafe, Woodward Design + Build, 1000 S. Jefferson Davis Parkway, 301-3709, GraciousBakery.com


HEALTH CONSCIOUS RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR


Sara Essex Bradley Photographs

The Green Fork

A kaleidoscopic menu of smoothies and freshly squeezed juice concoctions paints the backdrop of The Green Fork. Skip the high-fructose chain smoothie outlets and punch your straw into a new kind of post-workout Muscle Punch – the “Serenity” smoothie featuring banana, almond butter, coconut water, mango, bee pollen, hemp protein, vanilla and honey. Healthy catering is also part of their business, a rarity in New Orleans. Their Prytania Street location also offers grab-and-go salads and sandwiches. – J.F.

The Green Fork, 1400 Prytania St., 267-7672; 200 Metairie Road, 309-3677, GreenForkNola.com


VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR


Sara Essex Bradley Photographs

Ba Chi Canteen

While New Orleans offers a bounty of Vietnamese restaurants, their menus can seem interchangeable. Not so at Ba Chi Canteen, where traditional components collide in untraditional ways. Explore their “baco” submenu and enjoy folded-over steamed bao disks stuffed with shrimp and tamarind or pork belly, among other options. The accompaniments make use of an international pantry, throwing the doors wide open for creative expression, with dishes like their kimchee fries. – J.F.

Ba Chi Canteen, 7900 Maple St., 373-5628


MEXICAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR


Sara Essex Bradley Photographs

Taqueria Guerrero

Walking a nacho-thin line between the cheese-and-salsa-driven cuisine of Tex-Mex and the fresh-ingredient, herb-tinged cuisine of Old Mexico, Taqueria Guerrero is the kind of place normally found in large communities near the nation’s international borders. There are no pretensions or artificiality; the food is the star. It almost has to be because this establishment doesn’t possess a license to serve alcohol. Nachos, tacos, enchiladas, tamales, fajitas and the usual collection, all done in an old style and in large, reasonably priced servings. – T.M.

Taqueria Guerrero, 208 N. Carrollton Ave., 484-6959


STEAKHOUSE OF THE YEAR


Sara Essex Bradley Photographs

Mr. John’s Steakhouse

Kudos to Desi Vega, Rodney Salvaggio and Paul Varisco, the team behind Mr. John’s Steakhouse. This savvy collection of partners sidestepped trends to get to the meat of the matter: excellent steaks broiled to order in an 1800-degree oven. The platters arrive sizzling, the salads and appetizers are unpretentious and the list of sides reads like a letter from an old friend. Carnivores craving the quintessential steakhouse experience will love Mr. John’s. – J.F.

Mr. John’s Steakhouse, 2111 St. Charles Ave., 679-7697, MrJohnsSteakhouse.com


ASIAN MASH-UP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR


Sara Essex Bradley Photographs

Lucky Rooster

Chef Neal Swidler’s menu at Lucky Rooster draws inspiration from China, Korea, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, and the kitchen expertly manages the balancing act that breadth implies. Noodles, steamed buns and soups are the highlights, but drinks – both spirited and non-alcoholic – are essential components of the operation. The title of this award may be awkward, but the recognition is justified. – R.P.

Lucky Rooster, 515 Baronne St., 529-5825, LuckyRoosterNola.com


 

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