Best of Dining 2015
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Mixologist of the Year: Kent Westmoreland
The Southern lilt of an accent is the first hint that Kent isn’t from here; he's from Charlotte, North Carolina. But there’s the unmistakable respectful tone of love whenever he speaks of New Orleans.
“I came here with a degree in Business Administration and a specialty in computer programming.” Kent waited tables at restaurants, working his way through the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He liked the customer interaction. He reveled in assisting guests to find something on the menu they would really enjoy.
After graduation, Entergy hired him and brought him to New Orleans. He fit right in. And despite the fact that his family was not imbibers of alcoholic beverages, Kent liked what he was trying in his new hometown, renowned as much for cocktails as for cuisine. He became so intrigued with the topic that he enrolled in bartending school. That didn’t satisfy his curiosity; it piqued it.
He was enthused about the new flavors in his life, jazzed by the combinations of ingredients and, the best part, he was able to enjoy interactions with his customers, learning from them as much as he shared. The computer side of Kent’s mind blended with the creative side. His recall of hundreds of cocktail recipes is the more amazing because he also knows the precise measurements of all the ingredients.
“There is a reason a drink recipe calls for ¾-ounce. It’s all about balance, and the homework has been done,” he says. “I respect that a drink recipe states a specific ingredient and its quantity.”
Then there’s the creative joy Kent receives when he puts something together for the very first time, following experimentation.
Kent also has a dramatic side, a theatrical flair. He loves movies and books, particularly Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Kent even wrote a book, a mystery, Baronne Street, currently in print and available. That was followed by the drink, Redemption on Baronne Street.
“I ask my guests what they like; what’s their ‘usual.’ Then I take what they tell me and suggest drinks that they likely have never enjoyed, or drinks that have been created here. In that way we can move folks from their usual gin and tonic to a craft cocktail. I guarantee they’ll like what we suggest, or we’ll just go back to where they’re comfortable.”
– Tim McNally
Cocktail Bar, Windsor Court Hotel, 300 Gravier St., 523-6000, WindsorCourtHotel.com/Cocktail-bar-windsor-court
Concept of the Year: Primitvio
coal grilled ribeye
Primitivo bucks modern dining trends, and it isn’t accidental. The concept, as chef Jared Ralls, co-owner alongside chef Adolfo Garcia, described it to me, is “New American Hearth Cooking.” What that means in practice is that the restaurant is designed around a central open grill with multiple stations that allow for both rapid cooking over high heat and slower, roasting-style methods. The idea for it came to Ralls when his home oven broke, forcing him to rely on his charcoal grill for, among other things, baking.
Ralls sketched out the restaurant’s hearth to scale and provided the drawings to the engineers who manufactured it. It was a massive undertaking, not least because of the venting required to cook over live coals indoors.
Pretty much everything on the menu at Primitivo has at least one element that’s been touched by fire. It is far from molecular gastronomy, which doesn’t interest Ralls. The food is what the chefs, including Primitivo’s executive chef, Nick Martin, like to cook at home, and that’s reflected in many of the family-sized portions. There is a 26-ounce rib-eye, for example, that comes with marrow bones and sweet potatoes; when they haven’t sold out, you can also order a half rack of smoked pork spare ribs with an apple BBQ sauce and smoked potato salad.
Smoke also turns up on the drum ceviche with watermelon and chile, and the coulotte steak that comes with a charred vegetable tzatziki sauce. My favorite item on the menu has got to be the tripe in a spicy tomato sauce topped with Grana Padano cheese and croutons.
Primitivo is a welcome addition to the stretch of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard that also includes Purloo, Casa Borrega and, soon, the market and food emporium that was once called Jack & Jake’s. It is a restaurant that knows what it is, because it’s got a strong central idea, and that’s why we’re proud to name Primitivo the Concept of the Year, 2015.
– Robert Peyton
Primitivo, 1800 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 881-1775, PrimitivoNola.com
Best New Presence: Chef Nina Compton
Chef Nina Compton came to New Orleans to compete on the Bravo television series “Top Chef” in 2013. Like many people who spend time here, she fell in love with the people, the architecture and the culture, and started planning a way to get back. What sets Compton apart, though, is how thoroughly she seems to understand what makes New Orleans special.
She related a story to me about coming to town for Jazz Fest one year, and how surprised she was that everyone she spoke to had recommendations first on what to eat and second on the music. After the fest, she attended a crawfish boil. It wasn’t so much the details of the story that impressed me; it was the smile that lit her face and the sparkle in her eyes as she told it.
When the opportunity came to open a restaurant in the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, she and her husband, Larry Miller, jumped. She was drawn to the space, she says, because like a lot of New Orleans it had some grit. “It’s not shiny,” is the way she described it, and that could also describe a lot of her food at Compère Lapin, her new restaurant.
Compton is originally from St. Lucia, a Caribbean island in the Lesser Antilles chain, and there are certainly aspects of her cooking that reflect her background – conch fritters and curried goat, for example. But the food at Compère Lapin goes farther. The goat curry is paired with plantain gnocchi, and a chicken preparation includes a breast roulade with leek ash. The roasted grouper with Parisienne potatoes is another standout.
The chef told me her goal is for the food to have the bold, deep flavors that New Orleans residents love, and so far her clientele have been a mix of locals and tourists. Not every new restaurant that opens can satisfy such a broad spectrum of customers, but Compton and her team are pulling it off.
– Robert Peyton
half chicken with turnips and leeks
Compère Lapin, The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, 535 Tchoupitoulas St., 599-2119, CompereLapin.com
In Memoriam: The Passing of Pan
Claire McCracken Illustrations
There likely are few other professions where the Peter Pan lifestyle takes on such impressive proportions than being a chef.
Chefs remain creative, energetic, enthused, involved, generous and delightful throughout their entire lives. They remain at their posts, mentoring the next generations even as they continue to create and plate culinary delights for our enjoyment and amazement. There is a gleam in their eyes, a lilt in their voice and a desire to please at every phase of their lives.
And that is why losing a chef to life’s inevitable story-arch is a great loss. All human life is precious and to be savored. A chef’s life is something quite out-of-the-usual. This past year, New Orleans and the world have mourned the passing of dear friends, chefs who brought us immense pleasures.
Their legacies will live on, but we’ll no longer be blessed with their presence in the kitchen or at our tables. They enriched us, loved us, and now we have the memory but not the smiling countenance.
Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich: The man behind the oyster counter, assuring top-quality at Bozo’s seafood restaurant, at 86.
Dick Brennan Sr.: Co-founder of Commander’s Palace and Mr. B’s Bistro, creator of the Jazz Brunch and gentle guiding hand of a significant restaurant family, at 84.
Tony Angello: Many a diner has just said, “Feed me, Mr. Tony,” to initiate a feast at his Tony Angello’s Ristorante, at 88.
Willie Mae Seaton: Whose Creole soul food was served with love to Presidents and longshoremen at Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Tremé and she became a culinary icon late in her life, at 99.
Joe Segreto: The “restaurateur’s restaurateur” and always the gracious host through decades of great restaurants, most recently at 1179, at 75.
Paul Prudhomme: The remarkable creative visionary and the ambassador of Louisiana culture worldwide, at 75.
They were all extraordinary people who probably would have succeeded in any field where they devoted themselves. But they chose restaurants, which is why we relate to them at a visceral level and why we feel their passing as a personal loss. Taken together, the departure of so many greats in such a short period of time from our dining community is starting to look like a shift of the generations.
These are the giants on whose shoulders future generations of culinary stars will stand.
– Tim McNally