BEST IN DINING

One way that New Orleans has not suffered in recent times is in the quality if its restaurants. Our annual exercise of determining the best in local kitchens has left us totally encouraged about the talent in this city. Selections were made by the magazine’s editorial staff including our food writers. As always, the competition was intense. Did we make the right choices? Try dining out at our local restaurants and judge for yourself.

CHEF OF THE YEAR
Adolfo García – La Boca/ Rio Mar

One night Adolfo García might be putting the finishing touches on a flat iron steak with grilled asparagus and greeting customers at La Boca – his new Argentine steak house on Fulton Street. The next night, he could be around the corner at Rio Mar sautéing Gulf shrimp al ajillo or, if necessary, running plates through the dishwasher. “I just do whatever it takes,” García says.

He spent six years immersed in every aspect of Rio Mar, talking to his fish purveyors more than his wife. Now that he runs two restaurants, García must trust his well-trained staff with more of the daily details. “I’m playing the role of orchestra leader,” he says, “and I’ve got some great guys in my wind and my string departments.”

García always worked in restaurants while growing up in New Orleans. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1984, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. “Down South, we didn’t have a lot of people that went all the way up north to go to school for cooking, of all things,” he says.

After his first year of classes, he trained at the Windsor Court. “That’s where I learned some of the most basic things in cooking,” García says, “like don’t grab a hot pan without a towel.” He graduated from culinary school in 1987, and planned to work in New York for six months – maybe a year – and then come home to New Orleans. It would be almost a decade, however, before García cooked again at a New Orleans restaurant.

He worked his way across the kitchens of New York City and eventually became the executive sous chef at the Russian Tea Room, where he oversaw 30 cooks and served 1,000 people a day. However, in the early 1990s García was searching for a new direction. He left the Russian Tea Room to intern at restaurants in Spain. “I started looking for my own identity and my heritage,” he says. “As a Latino, a Spanish descendent, where was I going to take my food?”

In 1996, a meal at Peristyle convinced García that it was time to come home. “There was a plate of lentils, garlic sausage, squab and huckleberries,” he recalls. The restaurant was full and everyone was talking about the food. Susan Spicer, Mike Fennelly and Emeril Lagasse were cooking food that matched Garcia’s ambitions and interests. “They were starting to use different ingredients,” he says. “It was not just trout meunière, which I love, but that’s not what I wanted to do.”

His first restaurant, Criollo, brought fashionable Nuevo Latino cuisine to New Orleans, but closed after two years.

A year later, in 2000, he opened Rio Mar, which has become one of New Orleans’s favorite restaurants. The seafood-centric menu draws inspiration from across Latin America and honors the simplicity of Spanish cooking, allowing the fish and seafood to shine.

This year, García opened La Boca, a steakhouse that uses the same approach: simple preparations that don’t hide the main ingredients and creative dishes that remain within the tradition of Latin American cuisine.
Adolfo García, like the New Orleans chefs he admires, brought diners in this cultural melting pot a new range of flavors. He let our world-class dining city taste a few more corners of the globe.
— Todd A. Price

BEST NEW CHEF
Chris Debarr – Delachaise

“I’m the chef at the Delachaise,” says Chris DeBarr with the enthusiastic tone rock fans use to name their favorite band. Working alone most nights in the wine bar’s small kitchen, over the last year he’s created more than 175 different dishes of “high quality bar food that really has some fine dining sensibilities behind it.” Local diners have started to notice. Other chefs frequent the St. Charles Avenue bar. Even Michelin-starred celebrity chef Mario Batali stopped in recently and declared his meal “delightful and very sophisticated without trying to be sophisticated.”

Raised outside of Dallas, TX, DeBarr began cooking professionally when he was a student at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. When his wife – novelist and New Orleans native Poppy Z. Brite – convinced him to move to New Orleans in 1992, he began his education in fine dining.

His first job was at Arnaud’s. Then from 1994-’96, he worked on the line at Commander’s Palace under Jamie Shannon. For the next 10 years, he cooked al over town, from Vincent’s to Christian’s – where he was the chef de cuisine until Katrina closed the restaurant.

DeBarr’s Broadmoor home flooded, and he found himself unemployed and living around the corner from the Delachaise. “I went over there and basically bothered them, because their chef didn’t come back,” he says.
DeBarr thrives on the challenge of single-handedly turning out a nightly menu with up to 25 dishes, along with 20 cheeses, all while running the plates to the tables, answering questions from the customers and even washing the dishes. The food at Delachaise is full of bracing flavors and seasonal ingredients, like the fried oysters topped with horseradish cream sauce, Spanish-style roasted eggplant, onions and pepper with pesto, or a traditional Turkish dip made with walnuts, red peppers and pomegranate.

“I’m a New Orleans cook I’ve lived here so long, but I enjoy presenting people with the city’s Mediterranean roots,” he says. Recently DeBarr has raised the stakes for his one-man kitchen by offering a limited-seating chef’s menu, such as a 13-course cheese dinner or a seven-course foie gras menu.

“It’s all about working with limitations and turning your minuses into pluses,” he says. “It’s a great analogy for post-Katrina New Orleans.” — T. P.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT
IRIS

An astounding number of wonderful new restaurants have opened since the hurricane, making this year one of the toughest ever in this category. That said, “Iris” kept popping up as a blooming front-runner on all accounts – food, menu, service and ambiance. Opened by Chef Ian Schnoebelen and Laurie Casebonne (both alums of Lilette), Iris is disarmingly charming and impossible to ignore.

Nestled inside a quaint converted cottage that had previously been several popular restaurants, the small space is bright and pleasant. Pale green walls, crisp white trim and minimal wall art help “open” the two rooms that house about 10 tables, total. The feeling of the restaurant is homey, neighborhood elegance and the food matches beautifully with influences of Louisiana, Europe and Asia – call it homespun global.

Chef Ian runs the kitchen, kicking out dishes that demonstrate decidedly well-balanced plates of myriad textures – pillow-soft gnocchi paired with tender-crisp baby vegetables and large curls of good parmesan cheese, maybe a glisten of heady truffle oil to gild the lily; or toothy steaks and a stack of golden crisp French fries sprinkled with fat grains of salt, a side of buttery lettuce leaves dressed tartly with citrus sitting alongside. Chef Ian’s flavor sensibility is evidenced assertively in a mushroom consommé studded with chewy wild mushrooms emboldened by frizzled ginger as well as in perfectly seared diver scallops gently draped with grapefruit-tinged butter sauce and a portion of lightly cooked, peppery greens for contrast.

Laurie runs the front of house with seamless effort. The staff of two genial and easy-going servers (one of whom also bartends) join Laurie in their glide through the small dining rooms with nary a misstep and beautiful spacing between courses. There is a small but clever wine list and an ever-growing cluster of specialty cocktails that explore all manners of flavor from cantaloupe mojitos to blood orange and basil martinis. Before the food coma sets in, coffee service arrives as French press – individual carafes and larger – to accompany an array of simple desserts or a cheese course.

Ian Schnoebelen and Laurie Casebonne are two budding entrepreneurs with serious roots anchoring their restaurant flower of Louisiana. Iris is our best new dining adventure demonstrating there is beauty growing in New Orleans and much more to come. — Lorin Gaudin

BEST PASTRY CHEF
Nolan Ventura – Stella!

“I don’t order dessert in a restaurant,” says Nolan Ventura, the executive pastry chef at Stella!. “I don’t like sweets.”

His own desserts unexpectedly bridge the gap between savory and sweet. Smoked Gala apples are paired with milk chocolate and caramel mousse. A yogurt parfait is served with coconut-saffron curry and cucumber-lemon sorbet. A chocolate cake arrives with hot buttered lemonade.

Ventura begins with the visual. “Sometimes a color will set me off. I’ll develop desserts around color,” he says. “Usually I’ll just draw a picture of what I want my food to look like, and then I’ll figure what I need to make in order to make it look like that.” Once he has an image of a new dessert, he searches the kitchen for ingredients.

“I have a pretty set framework in my mind about what flavors I like together,” he says. “Root vegetables – beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips – all those are just amazing with chocolate. Celery, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn – all these things that blend so well together on their own. You just need one more element to make it into dessert. Something sweet. It can be anything: caramel, chocolate …”

Ventura decided to become a pastry chef in 1994, when he tasted Emily Luchetti’s creations at Stars in San Francisco, Ca. At the age of 30, he left his career dealing in rare books and entered culinary school. In 1997, a dinner at Bayona and a job offer from Susan Spicer brought him to New Orleans. Ventura has worked nearly everywhere, from the Windsor Court and Restaurant August to the Hyatt Regency – where in the late 1990s, he spent one year, four months and six days plating pre-made pies that arrived in boxes. Before the storm, Ventura was attracting attention for his work at Muriel’s.

At Stella!, Chef Scott Boswell has given Ventura a platform to follow his muse. “It’s the first place I’ve ever worked where I can cook without censors. No boundaries; no leashes,” says Ventura. “I’m a free-range pastry chef.”

“Dessert,” Ventura says, “should be the best course of the meal and leave diners with a little bit of astonishment.” — T. P.

BEST BARTENDER
Lu Brow – Swizzle Stick Bar – Loews Hotel

The best drinks require sip after sip to uncover their liquid mystery; as the glass is drained, secrets unfold continually, all the way to the very last drop. Bartender – no, Bar Chef – Lu Brow is precisely like the cocktails she expertly mixes at the Swizzle Stick Bar in the Loews Hotel. Spend any amount of time with Brow and as the drinks are poured, mysteries are revealed and the conversation flows – up until that last moment when she pulls herself away with a pat on the arm and says, “I’ve got to get back to it.” Her shock of bright red hair and dazzling blue eyes are filled with fun – she veritably lures patrons into her cocktail vortex and, by the way, she pours a mean drink.

Brow takes her craft very seriously, referring to her bar as “the kitchen,” carefully concocting by hand all the specialty juices, syrups and other potable details that make her drinks extraordinary. Even the garnishes are smart, coordinating well to play off contrasting flavors and provide balance. “Handcrafting cocktails is a big thing,” she says, “There’s always so much going on in this industry and it’s important to stay on top of it. Bartenders are even working with big companies as ‘distologists’ [creative consultants on new spirits.] We work hard to play hard.” Brow’s dedication is evident not just locally but nationally. She was recently recognized for her efforts by The Museum of the American Cocktail who awarded her a scholarship award to travel to New York for a five-day training program and certification course in advanced studies of distilled spirits and mixology.

Back home she’s the star of her bar, but Brow also acknowledges that Swizzle Stick’s success is a team effort and she personally trains each bartender with a firm, but gentle and well-informed stir, providing them the best of her 12 years experience in restaurant and bar service management. An innovator, Brow designs specialty cocktails and works closely with Café Adelaide Executive Chef Danny Trace on their brilliantly composed “Bar Chef Table,” a local standout dining experience with spectacular and well-considered cocktail and food pairings. “Kitchen chefs put everything in their heart on a plate; everything in my heart I put in a glass.” — L. G.

HONOR ROLL
Chef Gunter Preuss

“55 years in the restaurant industry.” It’s an impressive amount of time in this intense business – almost impossible to believe when looking at the exuberant and youthful face of Chef Gunter Preuss. He loves this city and the feeling is mutual. Clearly there’s a commitment; Chef Preuss is here for the long haul. Hurricane Katrina devastated his beloved restaurant, Broussard’s, but he fought hard, re-built and re-opened. Chef Preuss is a worker, a fighter who doesn’t give up easily – despite ridiculously expensive repairs, staff issues, the diminished number of locals and visitors and interestingly, the current dining scene’s contemporary menus that have become filled with strange details like the provenance of a lemon (“It’s a lemon, what more do you need to know?”)

Chef Preuss is a classic himself. He appreciates, even admires the new guard chefs and changing palates that have become more sophisticated, but his is an Old World culinary style. It’s just who he is, and there are too many well-developed relationships, responsibilities and established recipes in place to change – so the beat goes on, his way. Chef Preuss is of the “old school.” Trained in Germany in the classic grand hotel style of cooking, he arose during an era of fine hotel dining. Those of an age will remember the days of dressing well to dine in an elegant hotel restaurant; Chef Preuss was there.

When he arrived here in 1967, Chef Preuss worked at The Roosevelt. His contemporaries were legendary cooks like Warren LeRuth, Mike Roussel, Chris Kerageorgiou and Goffredo Fraccaro. When he finally left behind the security of the hotel world to become a chef-owner of a stand alone restaurant, he actually thought he’d made a horrible mistake.

Proving himself wrong, he established a model for reinvigorating the traditional restaurants of the French Quarter, applying the timeless cooking methods while maintaining his high culinary standards and requiring impeccable service. He’s created glorious dishes that are now regional classics and has long accepted the business risks he would never have faced had he remained a hotel employee. At Broussard’s, this award-winning chef has a menu that proudly includes dishes such as Louisiana Bouillabaisse, Veal Escalope Acadian and Pompano Napoleon, always with his own signature style. As a native Berliner, Chef Preuss is singular in offering the only entirely German menu during Reveillon – a stunning offering that has many patrons wishing for this food to become a permanent fixture at Broussard’s and in New Orleans once again.

Chef Preuss’s dedication to the craft of cooking, his unfailing spirit, that trademark accent and a restaurant that will forever be part of our time-honored dining scene, make him more than a representation of an era, it makes him a masterpiece. — L. G.

BEST COOKBOOK
New Orleans Food – By Tom Fitzmorris

Food maven and radio host Tom Fitzmorris distills his decades of cooking and dining experience into New Orleans Food. The useful and lively collection of recipes – both original and adapted from our city’s restaurants – supplemented with local culinary lore, legend and history create a cookbook that’s also a great read. Fitzmorris completed New Orleans Food just before Katrina, with finishing touches added during the nostalgic and nervous weeks after the storm. It’s not only the year’s best local cookbook, it’s also a cookbook with a cause – a portion of the profits benefit Habitat for Humanity to aid in New Orleans’ recovery efforts.
— L. G. and T. P.

BEST TACO TRUCK
Taqueria El Chaparral
Taquería El Chaparral perches between the pumps at a gas station on South Claiborne Avenue. When the big pickups pull in, you sometimes feel like squeezing closer to the little stand to give them room. El Chaparal, run by Mexicans who relocated to New Orleans from Eagle Pass, TX, began as a taco truck in the parking lot. City regulations forced them to move every 30 minutes, so they built a permanent enclosure to sell their simple quesadillas, tortas [sub-style sandwiches] and soft corn tortilla tacos filled with spicy pork, carne asada [grilled steak] or tongue, sprinkled with chopped onions and cilantro. On the weekends, they add to the menu menudo [tripe soup] and a shrimp stew called caldo de camarón. — T.P.

BEST NEW ORLEANS FOOD BLOG
Appetites.US – By Robert Peyton

Food is certainly a favorite blog [short for Web log] subject – for reading as well as writing – with New Orleans and her intrepid food-scene getting its fair share of bloggers both locally (there are at least 10 local blogs) and from far-flung locales, chiming in and serving up the dish.

Local attorney Robert Peyton is a long-time food fanatic, cook, and “aspiring writer” who began his journey by sharing recipes with friends. His recipe sharing turned into full-on blog with written food and restaurant commentary, stories, restaurant news and more. While his musings can include travel notes outside the confines of home, he mostly covers New Orleans restaurants and his site gets some 2,000 unique visitors each day. Repeat readers/commentators click on daily for Peyton’s smart, funny, thought-provoking and mouthwatering words. We’re addicted. — L.G.

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