Best New Restaurants
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When the Maritime Building in the CBD was converted into high-end apartments, residents there soon received a little lagniappe. Illy coffee distributor Rosario Tortorice was apartment hunting when he bumped into developer Marcel Wisznia in the lobby. “I had an Illy coffee cup in my hand and we got to talking,” Tortorice recalls. This chance encounter resulted in the creation of Merchant, a sleek combination café, coffee shop and wine bar that was subsequently slotted into the ground floor as an amenity.
The new business partners enlisted the help of architect Ammar Eloueini, who designed the striking space. With a clean, minimalistic design that looks as though it were inspired by a certain company in Cupertino, Calif., (home of Apple Inc.), its snow-white louvered walls and ceiling are softened by rustic accents of reclaimed wood. The limited seating gets a boost from a wrap-around dining area that extends into the lofty atrium of the Maritime building. Clearly, Merchant isn’t your average lobby afterthought.
Design aside, in a city where coffee options are still pretty much defined by chicory and hazelnut flavorings, Merchant is one of the few places that studiously avoids such additives and puts the coffee beans first. The beans of choice are, fittingly enough, Illy, and the drinks are classic café selections like espresso, macchiato and cappuccino. Shots are pulled on a gleaming XP1, a custom-built collaborate effort between the renowned espresso machine maker La Cimbali and Illy. “Within 1,000 miles of New Orleans there are probably just three or four of those machines,” Tortorice says. “The thermal stability of it is far superior from anything else on the market.”
The dining menu is grounded in European café standards, punched up slightly with input from Tortorice and a little help from Neal Bodenheimer of Cure. A trip to France during its planning stage figured in Tortorice’s adding crêpes into the menu. They come in both savory and sweet iterations.
For savory, consider the salumi and egg with goat cheese and red onion. For sweet, classics like Nutella and banana never go out of style, and you can concoct your own from a list of ingredients. Salads, crostini and croque baton sandwiches are offered as well.
In the evenings, the scene switches over from coffee shop to wine bar, adding reference No. 3 to their catch phrase “Coffee, Crêpes, Grapes.” The wine program draws a lot of residents,” says Tortorice. “It is casual and very approachable.”
Merchant, 800 Common St., 571-9580, MerchantNewOrleans.com.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week
The Irish arrived in New Orleans at an early date and have been one of the strongest influences on the city’s culture. Two centuries of assimilation left us with a lot of Irish bars, but not a lot of authentic Irish food, music or dance. Irish food doesn’t have quite the allure of other “ethnic” cuisines, but that’s not entirely fair. Ireland is most famous for rustic cooking, but in the hands of a talented chef, sometimes peasant food can be elevated to haute cuisine.
Chef Matt Murphy is a native of Dublin, and when he decided to open his own place after several years of heading the fine-dining kitchens at the Ritz-Carlton, he naturally focused on the food of his native land. He opened the Irish House, and the combination of a properly poured Guinness, traditional Irish pub fare and elements of Murphy’s fine-dining background have rapidly made it a hit.
In addition to a full Irish breakfast, the restaurant serves lunch and dinner, with the menu getting progressively more upscale as its shadows lengthen. Irish stew and shepherd’s pie are good bets, but the boudin with colcannon and smoked tomato sauce is more emblematic of Murphy’s approach; it’s a combination of local ingredients, Irish cooking and Murphy’s background as a fine-dining chef. Murphy developed relationships with local farmers and producers when he was at the Ritz-Carlton, and he’s continued to reap the benefits of those contacts. Much of Murphy’s menu is sourced from nearby producers, something in which he takes pride. A more casual pub menu is available at the bar, but if you see something on that menu that interests you, you can probably get it even if it falls outside of the service window.
Murphy also wanted his pub to include a shop where guests could buy hard-to-find Irish goods, so there’s a retail space, on the second floor of the restaurant traditional Irish music and dance are performed and the long pews that run parallel to St. Charles face a projection screen television that makes it a great space to catch a game.
Murphy and his wife, Alicia, are seemingly always at the Irish House, and it’s that level of involvement that’s perhaps most akin to the feel of a true public house. This is the Murphys’ passion, and that’s clear from the food and the plate to the Guinness in the pint glass.
Irish House, 1432 St. Charles Ave., 595-6755, TheIrishHouseNewOrleans.com.
Breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday; dinner seven days a week; brunch on weekends; bar menu is available starting at 3 p.m. daily.
Excellence in Bywater
Bywater is one of those neighborhoods that’s continually described as “up-and-coming.” A lot of people moved into Bywater in the last few years, but despite the influx of residents the options for adventurous dining remained fairly limited. That changed earlier this year when chef Michael Doyle opened Maurepas Foods.
Doyle characterizes the food at Maurepas as “robust,” which is a good way to describe the place as a whole; it’s not fancy – there are no tablecloths, and service is casual and friendly. But the food is excellent, and it’s clear that a lot of thought and effort goes into every plate. The quality is remarkable considering that the prices are reasonable; when I dined there last, the most expensive item on the menu – fish and chips – was $14.
The menu changes frequently so that Doyle can take advantage of seasonal ingredients, and some of the best items turned out by the kitchen are vegetables. The slow-cooked greens, root vegetable gratin and roasted broccoli I’ve ordered at Maurepas nearly outshone the more substantial dishes they accompanied.
Goat tacos served with a spicy cilantro harissa were delicious, as was the roasted chicken leg and thigh that came with creamy grits, some of the greens and a poached egg. The fish and chips mentioned above were a bit odd, in that neither the fish or the chips were fried, but the misnomer apart, the dish was pretty good.
Doyle did much of the renovation work on the building occupied by Maurepas Foods himself, and he did a great job. Light filtering into the large, open dining room from picture windows that face Burgundy and Louisa streets creates a nice ambiance.
The cocktail program is another area where the restaurant shines. Some of the drinks may sound odd on the page – the Chameleon’s ingredients include ginger limoncello, cucumber and smoked salt, for example, but the combination works. There are about as many beers on the menu as wines, including the obligatory Pabst Blue Ribbon, but the majority of the options are smaller, craft brews. Wines are available by the bottle, carafe or glass.
Maurepas Foods’ Bywater location is notable, but this restaurant would be making a splash in any neighborhood in the city with its combination of outstanding food, a beautiful setting and excellent service.
Maurepas Foods, 3200 Burgundy St., 267-0072, Facebook.com/MaurepasFoods
Lunch and dinner Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Sunday