New Orleans restaurants that aren’t afraid to play with their food.
Coconut shrimp, oyster and pork belly baco from Ba Chi Canteen
Certain restaurants in town are known for their creative plays on traditional foods. These sorts of culinary surprises are as pleasing to diners as plot twists are to moviegoers. I have written before about SoBou’s Caprese Salad, a dessert made with panna cotta and sweet citrus, and also about Company Burger’s Corn Hog, that ever-sinful pork belly corn dog, both of which reveal not only the work of a savvy and creative chef, but a restaurant’s willingness to have fun. Here is a look at two additional restaurants aren’t afraid to play with their food.
Ba Chi Canteen is a new Vietnamese restaurant on Maple Street, but it isn’t your average pho spot. The restaurant, which was opened in April by some of the family members who run Tan Dinh on the West Bank, is sort of like Tan Dinh’s cooler little brother. Here you’ll find bowls of perfectly cooked fries smothered in kim chi, thinly cut beef and spicy aioli. Fried calamari is more eloquent here than most of its brethren around town, opting for a breading that’s light and peppery. Ba chi means “pork belly” in Vietnamese, and the restaurant doesn’t disappoint, highlighting the fattiest of meats all over the menu. The spring rolls (un-fried, some refer to them as summer rolls) are especially impressive filled with crisp, fatty pork belly, a perfect eclipse of the hard-to-stomach, dried out pork we’ve so often come to expect in these rice paper wrappers.
What truly shines here, among a menu of outstanding banh mi (from pork belly to vegan tofu options), and bowls of steaming pho, are baco, which are actually stuffed and steamed Bánh bao (the literal translation of which is “enveloping cake”) served like tacos. These thick, fluffy Vietnamese tacos are truly inspired, with the Bánh bao having a sweeter flavor than a real taco, holding everything from ba chi, to coconut curry shrimp with sweet potato and a basil aioli, and an epic creamy and spicy soft-shell crab with eel sauce and nori. The baco come topped with a slaw-type medley of pickled carrot, daikon and herbs, unless of course, you order the dessert baco, which is piled high with ice cream and chocolate sauce. What makes the Ba Chi Canteen so different from other Vietnamese restaurants around is that it’s apparent the kitchen is having fun, delving into the realm of eccentric street food with smaller portions and crazier flavors.
The traditional Baumkuchen is a popular European dessert, but at Restaurant August, chef Michael Gulotta wraps the layered sponge cake around cured foie gras, accompanied by delicate cubes of champagne gelée and balsamic reduction for one of his most sought-after appetizers: the foie gras “three ways.” The appetizer also includes a more traditional terrine form and a foie gras mousse set atop Gulf tuna sashimi with puffed shrimp and strawberry marmalade. It sounds rather outlandish, but in fact the creamy mousse, tender sashimi and sweet jam with the crunchy, salty shrimp, give the effect of a delightfully sweet breakfast or dessert, something you definitely don’t expect from foie gras and sashimi. In essence, the foie gras three ways alone is worth the trip to August, but the impeccable service, the seasonal tasting menu and an irreproachable air of timelessness make this restaurant one of the most outstanding in the country. That doesn’t mean they take themselves too seriously, though.
Take, for instance, the dessert menu. While pastry chef Kelly Fields is able to masterfully deconstruct classic banana pudding, turning the basic dessert into a textural dreamland with all things house-made, including the pudding and banana cake with shards of banana meringue that melt on the palate, fluffy toasted marshmallows, powdered peanut butter, caramelized bananas and Nilla wafer ice cream (she makes the nilla-like wafers, too). It isn’t unusual for little plates of colorful bonbons, pralines and sugared gummy candies to also arrive at the table before you leave. Putting them in your pocket for later isn’t advised.
At Sucré, a poor boy is dessert, and we’re not talking day-old bread turned into pudding. The gelato poor boy consists of three giant scoops of gelato and a heap of whipped cream between a pâte à choux shell that looks like pistolette, which is then topped with ribbons of chocolate and strawberry sauce.
Ba Chi Canteen | 7900 Maple St. | 373-5628
Restaurant August | 301 Tchoupitoulas St. | 299-9777 | RestaurantAugust.com
Sucré | 3025 Magazine St. | 520-8311 | ShopSucre.com