We called ahead to say we would be arriving 10 minutes late for our 6:30 reservation at Vincent’s. A Friday night, people were already stacked three deep at the moodily lit bar, so we begrudgingly accepted the only open table: a two top against the wall across from the host’s stand, that would put one of us with our back to the door and the other with a view of it that ensured a face full of blazing streetlight at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Fern Street. Both of us were assured repeated blasts of hot air from the street.

The table sucked, but we were hungry and the place was crowded so we settled.

“Hey Baby, how’s your family? Look how big you’ve gotten! How’d that deal work out? We’ve got a special on the menu tonight that’s got your name on it. Mr. C! What a lovely dress, looking good! Let me get chair for you, ma’am. It’s a dry vodka martini with an olive and an onion: I’ll have that sent right over.”

Watching co-owner Anthony “Tony” Imbraguglio work his art is straight up cinema verite. Ever in motion with fluidity and grace, his is the kind of relaxed, though courtly, service associated with a dying breed of older restaurateur. But this 40-something man has the touch: He makes children feel important, women beautiful and men virile. Many warrant hugs or a kiss on the cheek. Upon accepting his greeting, Imbraguglio’s guests stand taller. What, after all, would one expect of the most important person in the room – even in a room full of them, you just know it’s you Tony admires most.

The food at Vincent’s is as fresh, flavorful and robust as it has ever been in the restaurant’s 17-year history. The Rose of Sicily pairs two pan-fried long-stemmed artichokes with a sauté of fresh sage, garlic and tomato with ribbons of prosciutto. The Oysters Almondine is both creamy and crisp, the crunch of toasted almonds a welcome foil for the rich sauce. The Chicken Parmigiana could be a standard bearer for the New Orleans-style red gravy classic and a special of grilled Duck Breast Carbonara was studded with sweet peas and ribbons of onion. Each dish was large enough for two.

We left happy, entertained and satisfied. What we thought was the worst table in the house turned out to be the best. With Tony at his station, Vincent’s delivers both dinner and a show.

 A veteran of kitchens helmed by the likes of Tom Colicchio, Jean-Georges, Emeril Lagasse, Rick Tramonto and John Folse, chef Ryan Haigler recently took over the kitchen at Grand Isle, and the revamped menu is at once familiar and brilliantly unique. In an appetizer of Alligator “Wings” small, bone-in pieces of baby swamp beast are brined and then basted with a sweet-hot peach glaze as they roast to a deep mahogany hue and served atop an unexpected froth of whipped bleu cheese. There is a lot going on here and I feared it might not work, but it did – it really, really did.

Just caught that morning, a whole lane snapper was deeply scored in a diamond pattern before it was battered, deep fried and set atop jicama slaw and a vibrant ginger, sesame, garlic reduction. Dessert was a mercifully diminutive peanut butter cheesecake served in a small jar, the mousse filling piped atop a crumble of powdered graham crackers. A thin glaze jelly and a puff of toasted marshmallow bits crowned the creation.
 


TRY THIS

Kingfish recently kicked off a Kitchen & Cocktails Dinner Series pairing chef Nathan Richard’s clever kitchen creations with bar master Chris McMillan’s cocktail artistry. Each five- to six-course dinner has a different theme. Upcoming dinners include the Halloween-inspired Odd Bits (October, $55), The Boucherie (November, $65) and Southern meets Italian (December, $65.)
 


Grand Isle 575 Convention Center Blvd., (on the Fulton Street promenade) 520-8530, GrandIsleRestaurant.com
Kingfish, Charters St., 598-5005, KingfishNewOrleans.com
Vincent’s 7839 St. Charles Ave., 866-9313, VincentsItalianCuisine.com