Best of Dining 2015
whole snapper from Sac-a-Lait
Marianna Massey photography assistant Scott Williams
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We pride ourselves in our restaurant coverage. Throughout the year our dining team is busy keeping pace with what is a very active culinary scene. For our December issue, though, we like to sit around the fireplace (well, if we had one we would), look back at the past year and make our picks of the best and notable. The selections on these pages are totally the results of discussions between our food writers and editorial staff. Some were easy calls; some were closely contested; others were worthy of mention but in need of a category. (For the latter we tried to be creative adding our own ingredients as needed.) As in all rankings one could quibble about what is first and what is second. There is no argument though, that all those listed here are top-notch. The buffet is now open.
Restaurant of the Year: Sac-a-Lait
Meet Samantha and Cody Carroll. She prefers “Sam.” They are newcomers to New Orleans from just north of here; Sam is from Gonzales and Cody from Batchelor in Pointe Coupee Parish. They are young, in love, have a beautiful daughter, Malle, and are two amazingly talented people.
Together they’ve devoted themselves to their love for each other and Louisiana cuisine. They met while attending the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge, from which they graduated. Together they created Hot Tails, a destination-restaurant in New Roads, and together they worked to begin a crawfish farming business in Cody’s hometown. And together they won the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, a prestigious annual competition among chefs statewide, which had never before had two Kings, much less married to each other.
“We just always felt, in every step of our careers, that if we were truly going to prove how good we were, we had to be in New Orleans,” Cody notes without an ounce of smugness.
They had an opportunity to acquire a spot on Annunciation Street in the Warehouse District. They knew it would work well for their concept. The place had been the site of two previous restaurants, within a massive condominium and apartment building converted from a historic warehouse.
As a side note, the Sous Chef at Sac-a-Lait worked here at one of those no-longer restaurants, joined Cody and Sam in New Roads and now is back. You know how it is: In Louisiana and New Orleans no one ever really leaves.
The design of Sac-a-Lait – the layout of the kitchen, the interior highlights, even the furniture, like the bar and barstools – were all created entirely by them and their families. The place is rustic while at the same time very modern. This is a setting that could only be at home in Louisiana.
As for the food, well, that’s why the community is buzzing. Cody’s family is all about hunting and fishing. Sam’s family is all about creating excellent cuisine using local ingredients in their home kitchen. These are families that were destined to be together without question.
Start with the Alligator and Mirliton, the Turtle Boudin Noir, the gumbo canard, the poisson fume or even chargrilled oysters from P&J. You can’t make a wrong move here. Move on to the snapper, grouper or best Gulf fish at the moment. Meat? Venison backstrap and sweetbreads should suit you, or a pork porterhouse. You might be more of a vegetable person; don’t worry, the freshest of seasonal offerings are at hand.
The wine list is solid but modest. However, the beer offerings are evidence that Cody does like his beer. From all over the region, mostly from Louisiana, Cody brings in what he likes, and no doubt, you will like them, too. Cocktails also possess a local flair with the Damn Thistle, Jetty & The Rocks and Horse’s Ass, among many others. Maybe they ‘ll tell you who that last drink was named for, maybe not.
There is something special, almost ethereal, about Sac-a-Lait. Not many places anywhere can imprint a local stamp on the décor, the cuisine, the beverages, even the staff and be equally successful on all fronts. Yet, this isn’t a restaurant that beats you over the head with “the theme.”
It is all-natural, and every aspect of design and operation has been well thought through. Sam and Cody are not old, experienced restaurateurs; they’re young, energetic, starting a family and setting roots into a food-centric place that has beckoned to them and they heeded the sirens’ call.
They are going to be an important part of the culinary community for many years in our town. Welcome, Sam and Cody.
– Tim McNally
Sac-a-Lait, 1051 Annunciation St., 324-3658, Sac-a-LaitRestaurant.com
Chef of the Year: Alon Shaya
Alon Shaya made a name for himself when he opened Domenica in the Roosevelt Hotel in 2009, which proved a success right out of the gate. Then in ’11, tasting menus began popping up which seemed incongruous with the Italian focus of the restaurant. Pegged to Israeli and Jewish traditions – Passover, for example – they nevertheless proved very popular. It was these specials that foreshadowed what was to come in ’15, when Shaya announced the opening of his eponymous restaurant on Magazine Street. The breakout success of both – the chef and the restaurant – are the reasons we named him Chef of the Year for 2015.
The common thread woven through all his restaurants is travel. “Traveling is the reason that Shaya is open. It is the reason that Domenica is open,” Shaya says, citing his year-long professional immersion in Italy, which laid the foundation for Domenica. Similarly, a visit to Israel in 2011 reconnected him with his roots at a point in his career where he was well positioned for growth. “I hadn’t been there since ’03, and in those years between I had gone through so much personally and professionally that when I went back it was like seeing it all again for the first time,” he says about that trip.
Timing also plays a big role. Interest in Israeli cuisine is ascendant in other food-forward cities like New York, and the sudden availability of the restaurant space (which was formerly Dominique’s on Magazine) fit the theme like a glove. And with it, Shaya also brought to New Orleans a cuisine that’s complex, healthy and relatively unexplored. All these proved to be the perfect precursors for its immediate success.
Most people are familiar enough with the Middle Eastern underpinnings of hummus and pita to cozy up to the menu, but the layering of the flavors, spices and influences that get overlaid atop are what make Shaya exciting and unique, as well as delicious. “Israel is a country that is less than 70 years old,” Shaya points out. “Prior to World War II you were only seeing food from the Middle East there. But today you see food from Russia, Greece, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, Spain and France, to name just a few.” With the immigration following the establishment of Israel came an influx of national cuisines and traditions. Mix in a couple of religious dietary restrictions and cultural cross-pollination over the course of the last three generations, and what you get is a multifaceted landscape of culinary possibility.
The best way to experience Shaya is to share. Start with a salatim board, an impressionistic array of pickled vegetables, salads and hummus dips united by the excelled fresh-baked pita that continuously emerges from the wood-burning oven. A traditional starting point, Shaya’s is dialed into the locavore scene by the use of regional produce – roasted okra, for example – and local ingredients – Progress Farm’s creamy yogurt is the base for his Labneh.
Shaya also has fun with his recipes, swapping out chicken for duck in his Matzo Ball Soup and rolling in Bulgarian-inspired fare like Borekas (pastry stuffed with feta, duqqa and oregano) in a nod to his grandmother. “My grandmother moved from Bulgaria to Israel in 1948, and now you can find borekas on street corners throughout Israel,” Shaya says. And while Shaya may be Israeli, it’s most certainly not entirely kosher, as evidenced by the Shrimp Shakshouka.
Esquire magazine recently voted Shaya as America’s Best Restaurant. This, plus his 2015 James Beard Award, has made this a destination not just for locals but for people all over the country. So plan ahead for reservations and be sure to come hungry, because each experience here will likely make you hungry for more.
– Jay Forman
for the table sampler including baba ganoush, hummus, lutenitsa, tabouleh and ikra