Cook is Cooking
Gris Gris adds sparkle to lower Magazine Street
Chicken & Dumplings and Oyster BLT at Gris Gris
photo by Mike Lirette
Canal Street is no longer my destination of choice for getting in the holiday spirit, as most of the locally owned stores have been replaced by T-shirt shops, spots selling the latest in bouncy sneakers and track suits and tourist-driven novelty shops. For me the holiday shopping magic resides largely on Magazine Street, which unfolds over five miles from its foot at Canal Street all the way up to Audubon Park, revealing multiple personalities through boutiques, haberdasheries, galleries, restaurants and cocktail spots along the way. At the height of the season the air is positively electric as people hauling shopping bags stuffed with unique goods that are often locally made crowd the sidewalks.
“I feel like we’re right at the gateway to Magazine Street,” says chef Eric Cook. “This is where the action starts to pick up. There are people everywhere. It’s full of life. “
Cook recently opened Gris Gris, a chic but comfortable restaurant and bar in the triangular-shaped building at Magazine and Felicity streets with the tantalizing bonus of outdoor seating on the deep, graceful second floor balcony. If people watching and a long hang with friends on a beautiful day is your jam, then this is your spot. Like Magazine Street itself, Gris Gris reveals different faces as one moves through the space but never risks an identity crisis. Gris Gris is firmly rooted in New Orleans’ singular style of warm hospitality and features inspired takes on the southern cuisine locals cherish and visitors seek out.
Enter from the street to the option of food bar seating around the open exposition-style kitchen. Cook, as friendly and engaging as he is talented, is quick with a generous welcome and conversation. Head up the staircase to a collection of wooden tables surrounding an expansive cocktail bar and access to that magical balcony. It also affords access to The Samedi Room, Cook’s private dining and event space that includes a private kitchen and dining table for up to 12 people with the option of seating more. Named for Baron Samedi, a Voodoo loa, the Samedi has a private lounge space located on the venue’s third story with plush seating, a large-screen TV and two additional outdoor balcony spaces over Magazine Street.
Cook, a New Orleans native, should be familiar to local diners. His 25-year career has brought him through the kitchen of Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, Bourbon House, Tommy’s Cuisine and N.O.S.H., giving him plenty of time to figure out what he wanted to do in his own place.
“I’m staying in my lane,” Cook says. “I’m doing what I do well and not trying to be everything to everyone.”
Expertly friend Gulf oysters make two memorable appearances on the starter menu. They are the main attraction on a refreshing salad with crisp Little Gem lettuce, thin shavings of watermelon radish, a scattering of bleu cheese and a hint of sugarcane vinaigrette. They co-star in a fun take on a BLT alongside cubes of smoked pork belly and a truly sensational tomato jam.
A silken tomato butter sauce elevates the Shrimp & Fried Green Tomatoes to game changing status. Ditto that for the smoked sausage, roasted red peppers and cherry tomatoes that enhance the Shrimp & Gris Gris Grits.
“My mom makes this every year for my birthday and I plucked this straight from her,” Cook says of his deeply satisfying Chicken & Dumplings, which have the power to bring a warm smile to the stoniest of faces. Tender ribbons of pulled chicken mingle with carrots and pillow-like dumplings, the long cooked dish enlivened at the last moment with the addition of fresh thyme.
The miniscule Estaño on St. Claude Avenue is a most worthy destination. Beautifully crafted Spanish-style small plates of imported tinned seafood such as are served alongside crisp ham croquetas, truffled egg toast, pan con tamate kissed with tarragon, assorted cheeses and house-baked bread.
2266 Saint Claude Ave., 930.8038, EstanoNola.com.
1800 Magazine St., 272-0241, GrisGrisNola.com.