Best New Restaurants
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS
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We suppose it’s a sign of progress that so many new restaurants have opened during the past year. The activity certainly shows confidence in the local economy and is also a tribute to tourism, which provides another level of patrons to fill tables. Here we present our choices of those among the new most worthy of trying. Though we consider all the restaurants to be, more or less, equals, we did make the call and single out one as being the Best of the New.
An editorial committee consisting of our food writers and editors made the decisions. There were some tough choices but all are worthy discoveries.
Our Choice: Best of the Best
If you fall into that class of diner who says, “I don’t go out to eat for something I can cook at home,” then Root deserves your undivided attention.
During a recent sit-down in the Warehouse District hotspot, executive chef and owner Phillip Lopez was awaiting delivery of a tank of liquid nitrogen. “Now that the weather is hot, I think we can find good uses for it,” he said. He followed through at a meal soon after when a frozen peach mousse – the dessert before the dessert – arrived at our table. Made from a cube of frozen, whipped peach foam that was dipped in nitrogen before being served, it vanished on the tongue in a whiff of peach flavor.
Root’s menu is ebullient, its compositions shot through with a technical curiosity that approaches classic flavor combinations with a modernist perspective achieved through the requisite toolbox. Joining the kitchen’s usual equipment parade is a second-line krewe of dehydrators, immersion circulators and cold smokers. But despite the high-tech gear, Lopez is quick to assert that when creating a dish, it’s the flavor that comes first and that the tools are means to achieve it and not the end itself. “I hate when people label it molecular cuisine, because all food is molecular at some stage, right? It is more about modernization,” Lopez explains. “We take Old World dishes, Old World ideas, and approach them with modern techniques.”
Somewhat surprisingly, guests have been generally responsive to this avant-garde style of cuisine that’s more attuned to what you’d find in cities like Chicago or New York. “In the beginning it was a gamble,” Lopez admits, “but I got lucky with the typical New Orleanian’s palate, because as a rule we like spice and big flavors.”
In the eight months since Root opened, Lopez has been riding a wave of accolades, including a Rising Star award from Star Chefs. He has embraced his leap to ownership with enthusiasm and aplomb. “A lot of restaurants seem to follow that routine where they say, ‘Hey, this works, let’s just leave it alone,’” he says. “I have an opportunity here to put blueprints aside and do something unique.” His tour of duty through five of John Besh’s kitchens – along with training under renowned chef Michel Richard and a stint as executive chef of Rambla – has prepared him well for his first solo run.
Lopez is a young chef, and his kinetic menu reflects that. Dishes tend to be labor-intensive. His Tea Smoked Yard Bird (chicken by any other name – the vocabulary does get a little precious) is a three-step process. The bird starts off in a smoker. Brown sugar, black tea and aromatics (star anise, cloves, etc.) smolder along with the chicken to set the flavor. Cooking is completed in a regular oven, and finally a sheet of “porcini paper” (powdered mushrooms blended with a liquid and then dehydrated on a sheet of acetate) is draped over the top as a sort of laminate that lends not so much a specific taste but a depth of flavor to the skin.
Clearly, food doesn’t have to be this complicated. And the average diner will likely not know how much work has gone into the dish unless they ask. Question your server, though, and you’ll be rewarded with an eye-opening description of the prep work entailed. As an illustration, I asked Lopez to walk me through a dessert simply called Strawberry Delight. The name is where simplicity ends. “We use a lot of techniques,” he warns me, then dives into the explanation. First he makes “strawberry leather” – fruit gets puréed with sugar and water, laid out on acetate then sent through a dehydrator. Next up is a “honeycomb candy,” essentially boiled honey, sugar and water with the late addition of baking soda to cause it to bubble just as the candy solidifies. The batter for the cake component sounds like a cross between an Easy-Bake Oven recipe and a late-night dorm room binge session. Puréed almonds are mixed with cake flour, blended with egg whites, passed through chiffon and put into a whipped cream canister. It gets charged by nitrous, the batter microwaved for 30 seconds and voila! Instant yellow cake. For plating, a vacuum chamber machine draws the bubbles out of strawberry syrup, which clarifies it into a “strawberry gel.” Homemade fizzy rocks, concocted with powdered freeze-dried strawberries, are a garnish, and a frozen yogurt component gets aromatized with black cardamom.
“Strawberry shortcake is pretty much something Americans have been eating forever for the 4th of July, right?” Lopez asks. “So this is my idea of taking those flavors and modernizing them.”
Is all this stuff necessary to make a dessert? No, but it’s fascinating. And if you want a little something you can’t get at home, Root belongs at the top of your list.
- Jay Forman
Root, 200 Julia St., 252-9480, RootNola.com.
Lunch Monday-Friday; dinner seven days a week; open until 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Rustic and Vibrant
Amanda and chef Isaac Toups opened their restaurant, Toups’ Meatery, on April 17 of this year, at the former home of the Mediterranean Café. True to the name, the restaurant is a celebration of all things carnivorous. The Toups family love to eat together, and many of the items on the menu at the Meatery are designed to be shared. The open dining room encourages visiting among tables and, while the place can get loud when it’s full, the atmosphere is vibrant.
Service is overseen by Larry Nguyen, whom this magazine named Maître d’ of the Year in 2010. He and a small staff of veteran servers from other local restaurants have the place running smoothly, despite the difficulty presented by a menu of which the components change regularly.
The best atmosphere in the world won’t translate to success if your food isn’t any good, but Toups’ Meatery succeeds on both counts. In keeping with the trend toward in-house charcuterie, the restaurant has a wide and ever-changing selection of cured meats, sausages, pâtés and rilletes.
The menu includes such standouts as lamb neck over black-eyed pea ragout with minted chow-chow; roasted duck with a sastsuma jus and thyme-roasted turnips; a double-cut pork chop with dirty rice and a cane-syrup gastrique; and chicken thigh confit with white beans, mustard greens and a gravy made from chicken gizzards. The Toups say the theme of their food is “rustic ingredients, finished beautifully.” And that’s a great way to describe it.
What is remarkable about Toups’ Meatery, and the reason that we’re including it in this list, is the passion for food and service that comes through in your interactions with the staff and in the food on your plate. Isaac and Amanda Toups had been thinking about opening their own restaurant for quite a while before the opportunity came along, and while you can’t call the Meatery a “mom-and-pop” operation, it’s got that hands-on, welcoming feel. These are people who love to cook and, more importantly, love to see other people eat well.
- Robert Peyton
Toups’ Meatery, 845 N. Carrollton St., 252-4999, ToupsMeatery.com.
Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday; open until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
In baseball parlance – and because we are in that season we should be topical – it’s known as “small-ball.”
Small-ball means not hitting for home runs, but going for singles and doubles. It means keeping the fielders close, so as to cut off hits from the opposing team that usually just drop into the open spaces. And often it means winning by just one or two runs. But it does mean winning.
Apolline is successfully playing small-ball. The dishes are delicious and solid. The service is personal. The drinks are excellent. You don’t have to knock diners off their seats to win. You have to be solid, secure in who you are, satisfied that you can satisfy.
Apolline, which is a Creole girl’s name, opened with little fanfare because for all intents and purposes it was already opened. The restaurant formerly known as Dominique’s boasted Dominique Macquet helming the operation until he went off to consult on the opening of Tamarind, and the soon-to-be opened new Dominique’s just down Magazine Street. Then chef Matthew Farmer, formerly sous chef at Salú, also on Magazine Street, moved in and not a beat was missed.
Farmer is a Metairie boy who graduated from De La Salle on St. Charles Avenue, still in the neighborhood.
The dining space in Apolline is warm and cozy but not tight. If you like a lively scene, sit toward the back near the bar. The cuisine style is described as contemporary Creole, and if this is a direction for Creole cooking, we’re all in for a great future.
The sweetbreads are grilled and served with grits and chimichurri: comfort on top of comfort with a little comfort on the side. Boudin is accompanied by house-made pickles, perfectly crisp and vinegary. Grilled oysters come with garlic butter and piave, an artisanal cow’s milk cheese. Smoked ham and duck gumbo that boasts Jacob’s andouille with a thyme-scented rice will have you thinking about another helping of the same before the main course.
The menu boasts an extensive list of entrees. The drum is sautéed and comes with grits and a crabmeat and mushroom ragu. An aioli lightly covers the fish, and the beautiful and delicate flavor truly shines.
For bigger appetites, or to share, there’s a caraway-crusted pork tenderloin topped with a pork jus, and on the side is an onion and apple chutney with mashed potatoes. The lamb arrives with couscous; the duck leg with andouille and potato hash; and the scallops with a shrimp and corn maque choux.
To Apolline’s credit, there’s an excellent cheese board offered, and desserts are every bit as creative and in-theme as the other courses.
Small-ball isn’t a compromise. Everyone has to be better at their position to play that game. Chef Farmer and his staff have mastered the dynamic in a very short period of time.
– Tim McNally
Apolline, 4729 Magazine St., 894-8881 ApollineRestaurant.com.