Best of Dining 2015
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Restaurateurs of the Year: Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts
We could subtitle this family tale of success in the hospitality industry, “The little daiquiri shop that could.” Because that is where it all began – in Chalmette.
The Ammari family came to New Orleans from Jordan over a period of about 10 years. Eldest son, Marviani, attended the University of New Orleans. He liked everything about the city, in particular the opportunities to own his own business. His younger brothers followed him in order of age, first Richy, then Zeid and finally Dad and Mom.
By 2001, the family was together, according to Marv, “in one of the most welcoming and interesting cities in the world.” Opportunities to expand the daiquiri business came with investments and management in bars and restaurants. Hurricane Katrina sent them all to Houston where as a family they: 1) agreed, going forward, to focus on acquiring and operating restaurants with bar services; and 2) without reservation, decided to return to New Orleans as soon as possible to participate in and contribute to the rebirth.
Along the way, Marv, the CEO, Richy, the CFO and Zeid, the COO, acquired new restaurants, all in the Vieux Carré. They pledged to preserve the culture and the history. And they agreed that every restaurant under their care would be an individual effort, standing on its own, with its own identity, cuisine and profit plan.
They all also married New Orleans ladies, had New Orleans babies and created a lot of jobs in New Orleans.
Today, the restaurants and bars range from that treasured daiquiri shop in Chalmette, still in operation, to the historic upscale dining destinations of Broussard’s, Bombay Club and Kingfish. Coming on-stream very shortly is the Boulevard American Bistro, Creole House Restaurant and Oyster Bar, the yet to be named reception center and wedding facility in the French Market that was Bella Luna Restaurant and most recently, Galvez, two suburban bars and an upscale but casual restaurant, currently in development.
“We have been blessed as a family and as members of this amazing community,” Zeid says. “We are humbled by how our businesses have been supported and favorably reviewed by diners, guests, critics, locals, visitors and special events hosts. Not a moment passes that we do not recognize the debt we owe New Orleans for the gracious acceptance of the Ammari family.”
Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts includes: Broussard’s, Kingfish, The Bombay Club, Royal House Oyster Bar, Cafe Maspero, The Original Pierre Maspero’s, Bourbon Vieux, Bayou Burger & Sports Company, Chartres House, Le Bayou, Pier 424 Seafood Market, Daiquiri Paradise, and all of the Big Easy Daiquiri locations.
– Tim McNally
Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, CreoleCuisine.com
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: Bourrée at Boucherie
buffalo wings with cracklin
Chef Nathanial Zimet and business partner James Denio first opened Boucherie as a brick-and-mortar extension of the food Zimet had been cooking in his food truck, Que Crawl. Recently, when the space at 1506 S. Carrollton Ave. became vacant, the pair decided to move into the slightly larger space. Not long thereafter, another space, this time at 1510 S.
Carrollton Ave. became available, and the pair opened Bourrée at Boucherie, which in addition to the chicken wings and fresh-fruit daiquiris in which it specializes, also offers boudin, Natchitoches-style meat pies and an expanding list of other products.
Bourrée at Boucherie is a casual spot that feels as though it’s been in the location far longer than it has. It is, in other words, a great neighborhood restaurant. While neither Zimet nor Denio were born here, they’ve come to love the city and the Carrollton neighborhood where they got their start. It is safe to say the feeling is mutual, and we’re proud to name Bourrée at Boucherie Best Neighborhood Restaurant, 2015.
– Robert Peyton
Italian Restaurant of the Year: Avo
Thanks to a recent buildout of the transitional space and the installation of a striking retractable roof, the owners of the building housing Avo have finally nailed the formula that makes this indoor/outdoor jewel of a space work year-round. But the heart of Avo is chef Nick Lama. With family roots extending back to the original St. Roch’s Market, Lama’s Italian menu is also progressive thanks to his time spent at Gautreau’s.
“I like to do simple, bright clean flavors. I don’t like overly complicated things,” Lama says. “I’m trying to blend traditional Italian with a bit of a modern mindset.”
His appetizer of charred octopus is a case in point, held fork-tender via sous vide but seared to order for pick up. It gets plated with grilled eggplant and (recently) cranberries for a seasonal twist. Fans of more traditional Italian fare would like his lasagna layered with beef short rib ragu. But few dishes can match the visual appeal of his braised pork shank, a Flintstone-esque tower of tender pork on the bone surrounded by herbed spaetzli and cider-braised cabbage.
– Jay Forman
Avo, 5908 Magazine St., 509-6550, RestaurantAvo.com
Honor Roll: Liuzza’s
frenchuletta, shrimp & artichoke soup, with a schooner
In a town that’s opening new restaurants at a dizzying pace and showing no signs of abating, there’s much comfort in knowing that the tradition of a true New Orleans neighborhood restaurant is alive, well and thriving.
Boston may have its "Cheers," but after the hit TV series there’s reason to doubt authenticity, while New Orleans has Liuzza’s. Change has taken place to the city and the neighborhood since 1947, when Liuzza’s opened its doors, but within the walls that withstood the waters after Hurricane Katrina, little has changed. Not the time-worn bar, not the beer signs, nor the stools and chairs that harken to the ’50s or before, nor the glass brick walls that let in a bit of light but not too much. At Liuzza’s it isn’t a matter of bending to the breezes of change that come to every establishment; it’s a matter of getting it right and then sticking with it.
Liuzza’s is doing what it started out to do: Provide for its neighbors solid, honest, delicious fare based on the family’s Creole and Italian heritage. Oh, and we probably should mention Liuzza’s has always served the coldest mug of beer in New Orleans. That doesn’t hurt a restaurant’s reputation in a town that loves its suds.
Then there’s the Frenchuletta, a culinary blend of the cultures that define Liuzza’s. The sandwich, invented here and served only here, takes the ingredients of an Italian muffaletta and puts them within a French poor boy loaf. It is definitely a hit.
More cultural mash-ups include one of the truly classic andouille gumbos in town, lasagna like your mother should have made it, Italian-stuffed artichokes and fresh-cut French fries as well as freshly done onion rings. An amazing fried chicken is tough to resist, still served atop a slice of buttered white bread toast.
Count your blessings: The Mid-City neighborhood surrounding Liuzza’s is changing, and the city has repaved Bienville Street.
But changes in this part of town don’t come easy or often, nor should there be any changes to the neighborhood institution known for almost 70 years as Liuzza’s.
– Tim McNally
Liuzza’s, 3636 Bienville St., 482-9120, Liuzzas.com
Giving Back: Press Street Station
New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts has long been instrumental in providing pre-professional development for students in the creative arts. And now Press Street Station offers members of its culinary program an on-site proving ground for putting their skills to the test. And if the charm of its students, their food and their backstory doesn’t win you over, the gorgeously wrought space with its soaring, clean contemporary lines, natural light and custom millwork will help. Because the only thing better than digging into their Bywater Benedict (boudin patties over tasso-braised mustard greens topped with poached eggs and hollandaise) is knowing you do so for a good cause.
“They are high-level cooks for teenagers, I was impressed by what they can do,” says chef James Cullen of his young wards. “In addition to working in the front and the back, they also make a lot of the stuff that we sell at the marketplace, like the jellies and the jams.”
Strictly speaking, Press Street Station is a for-profit restaurant that’s part of the NOCCA Institute, whose profits flow back to NOCCA. In addition to their other duties, the students also help with special events and run the Boxcar, Press Street Garden’s food truck, every Saturday as their senior project. “They pick their menu, I order, they grab it, cook it and handle the rest,” Cullen says. Students also work alongside resident horticulturalist Marguerite Green in the garden one day a week. “From that they gain a much deeper understanding of where their product comes from.”
Since Cullen took over earlier in the year, he has steered a course for a more focused and regionally inspired menu than what was offered before. Other brunch options include the Marigny Benedict topped with panko-breaded mirliton patties, poached eggs and hollandaise over kale. Sweet choices include Sweet Potato Brioche Pain Perdu with fruit compote and sweet and spicy pecans. Keep your eye open for upcoming special theme dinners and cooking classes going into the winter months and your ears tuned to regular musical performances by students and alum.
– Jay Forman
Press Street Station, 5 Press St., 249-5622, PressStreetStation.com
Southern Cuisine Restaurant of the Year: Brown Butter
fried chicken & waffle sandwich
Restaurants serving southern cuisine have proliferated like kudzu in recent years. Yet many fall prey to overly precious reconsiderations or suffer from academically earnest navel gazing. Brown Butter deftly sidesteps this pitfall, focusing instead on approaching its dishes with a broad brush Bible Belt sensibility paired with increasingly refined technique.
“Our menu has definitely evolved since we opened,” Simon Beck says about the restaurant he co-owns with chef Dayne Womax. “Plus we like to change things up as much as possible to keep things fresh for our kitchen and our guests.”
Examples of this can be found on Womax’s brunch menu, recently extended to include Saturdays. Here you will find creations like his Green Tomato and Crab Benny, a take on eggs Benedict featuring fried green tomatoes and lump crabmeat atop a cornmeal hoecake in lieu of the more traditional English muffin. Other dishes include his vinegar-braised beef short rib served with grits and peanut salad. Local art and a low-key vibe round out the appeal.
– Jay Forman
Brown Butter, 231 N. Carrollton Ave., Suite C, Mid-City, 609-3871, BrownButterRestaurant.com
Bakery & Beyond: Willa Jean
cookies and milk
The idea that eventually became Willa Jean started before Hurricane Katrina. Pastry chef Kelly Fields had been discussing opening a bakery with chef John Besh, but after Katrina she left town for a few years and it never came to fruition.
The idea didn’t go away, though, and when her colleague Lisa White came on board at Domenica and Pizza Domenica, things started happening. The two looked for a location, hoping for a spot that would recall the corner bakeries that were once ubiquitous in New Orleans.
When they saw the space at 611 O’Keefe Ave. in the South Market, and heard about the plans for the overall development, they were sold. What was conceived as a bakery, though, ended up being much more. In addition to bread, pastries and baked goods, there’s a full savory menu, excellent coffee, beer, wine and cocktails.
Willa Jean is a great bakery, to be sure, but it’s a lot more, and that’s why we’re awarding it Bakery and Beyond 2015.
– Robert Peyton