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Best Of Dining
The New Orleans dining scene continues to enthrall, thrill and entertain. While we may have lost several local favorites, the list of dining options are bigger and better than ever, and buoyed by a burgeoning craft brewing and distilling scene. We can now drink, as well as eat, local.
Our selections for the best of the best were made by our trio of restaurant writers plus our editorial staff. The choice was a challenge, but we were able to make selections with no reservations.
CHEF OF THE YEAR
8132 Hampson St. / 252-9928
It has been a crazy year on the dining scene. Stoner sandwich shops propelled to the upper echelons of fine dining acclaim, a chain reaction of food festivals, the explosive expose at the Besh Restaurant Group and drama with Tales of the Cocktail…the list goes on. Yet if you look past the spectacle, you might notice a small restaurant in the Riverbend that has quietly been building a name for itself, proceeding with small, precise steps to become a critical darling. In the face of all the trends and hype out there, it has discreetly worked its way to the top. This restaurant is Carrollton Market, helmed by owner Jason Goodenough, who is our 2017 Chef of the Year.
Carrollton Market initially opened as a contemporary bistro that leaned heavily on southern influence. Since then it has matured, unfolding almost organically as Goodenough widened the spectrum to encompass a broad range of perspective, including French, Italian and Japanese. But he still deftly manages to link dishes to home. A case in point is the Duck Confit, with a southern twist on the classic French method. Goodenough supplements the confit process with additional fat rendered from Benton’s Bacon to layer the flavor, resulting in a deeper, smokier taste. At press time it was accompanied by Collard Greens Ravioli and ‘pot likker’ jus – a contemporary southern star.
Goodenough spent his formative years in Philly with French Chef Georges Perrier and Japanese Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and their influence is seen in both these dishes, but Goodenough adds his own spin, setting them apart. Goodenough is quick to credit his staff for their input as well. “Everyone here brings something to the table,” he says. “It’s a collaborative effort and that’s led to the evolution of this restaurant.”
Building on his success, Goodenough has lately added brunch with a beast of a cinnamon roll that has received attention from Food and Wine and his burger rates as one of the best of the luxe versions that appear on white tablecloths around town.
Chefdom at first did not seem to be in the cards for Goodenough, who originally aimed for a career in finance. But his parents loved food and dining, and an upbringing that included a childhood spent partly in London, augmented by travels in France, planted the seeds for a future in the restaurant industry. “I love food,” he says. “It has always been a central part of my life.” After college he interned on Wall Street but “thought it was like the worst thing, ever.” He switched gears, enrolled in the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), and never looked back. Since then he has made a name for himself with his guest-focused approach and an emphasis on culinary excellence. These are fundamentals, but fundamentals matter. “It is good to know that a focus on the basics and a commitment to customer service can still get you noticed,” Goodneough says. “I’m relieved to know it is not all viral trends and hype.”
– Jay Forman
BEST BAKE SHOP
Beth Biundo Sweets
3917 Baronne St. / 899-8059
Beth Biundo spent about a decade running the dessert/pastry program at the Magazine Street restaurant Lilette. She left in 2013 to pursue a career in interior design, but at some point she knew she wanted to get back into pastry.
She started a business making special order cakes out of a commissary, but she began looking for a storefront before long. It took about a year and a half to find the right space, but she’d outgrown the space she’d been using, and she wanted a place where she could interact with customers without driving all over town to meet with people at their homes.
She also enjoyed decorating the new place, which was formerly the butcher shop Cleaver & Co. She’s created a comforting space, with white walls and subtle colors in the pale green leather chairs and occasional bursts of interest such as in the pattern on a woven basket on sale in a display when I was last there.
It’s that sort of detail that makes her food so special, too. Baking requires precision, and Chef Biundo marries that precision with the sort of creativity that separates the good cooks from the great.
Chef Biundo’s business is still largely special orders, and a lot of that is cakes. But having tasted the desserts she plated at Lilette, I assure you there’s a great breadth to her talent. At her new shop, she offers cookies, cupcakes, tarts and ice cream in addition to cakes, and you can find a limited selection of everything in a glass display case near the entrance.
Chef Biundo told me that regular customers call her to find out the ice cream flavor of the day, and I think that tells you all you need to know. When you have that sort of clientele in New Orleans, you’re doing something right.
That’s why we’re proud to name Beth Biundo Sweets our Bake Shop of the Year for 2017.
– Robert Peyton
2037 Metairie Road
570-6338 / BrasaSteaks.com
There is something about New Orleans that brings out the best talents in the population. Our want to not do it the easy way. A couple of guys from South America who love good food meet at Delgado Community College, but not in the Culinary School (Finance and Art programs), decide to open a steakhouse featuring beef prepared the way it’s done in their native Ecuador and Columbia, make it casual but decidedly upscale, in a town that is renowned for seafood, and have a great time with the project.
Brasa Churrasqueria, and its dedicated, focused owners, Antonio Mata and Edgar Caro, have found a following, which is growing dramatically, by serving excellent cuts of meat cooked over a South American-style wood burning grill. Their success has not just been achieved over the short period of time they have been open, it is the result of growing up with this style of cuisine at their homes in South America. Nothing gimmicky. Straightforward, authentic preparations like Mamá and Papá used to serve every week.
– Tim McNally
BEST GERMAN RESTAURANT
617-B Piety St
301-3222 / bratzyall.com
New Orleans has a German heritage that’s been largely overlooked. We once had multiple German restaurants, and a thriving German culture, but after two world wars, things changed. When I was a young man just starting to work in the CBD, Kolb’s restaurant was the last holdout. I’m told it was far from its glory days when I experienced it, but I certainly enjoyed the food and the beer and dining in a room with belt-driven fans and a lot of history.
Bratz Y’all is every bit as German as Kolb’s; chef-owner Sven Vorkauf is from Berlin, and the food and beer at his Bywater restaurant, Bratz Y’all, ist sehr Deutsch.
Pretty much everything is made in-house, from the multiple varieties of bratwurst, to the sauerkraut, to the pretzels. It’s the only place in town that I’m aware you can find actual German dumplings, spätzle or the sort of apple strudel you’d find in Deutschland. They make an excellent schnitzel (pork or chicken) and red cabbage with apples and I’ll be damned if I can think of another place in town that uses caraway to such good effect.
There’s a relatively small dining room with high communal tables in the center and seats along a shelf that lines two walls, but the real fun is outside in the courtyard under the hanging lights and patio-umbrellas. It’s a great place to try one of the many German beers on tap, or to sample a glass of German wine or schnapps.
A lot of the allure of a German beer garden is the atmosphere, and Bratz Y’all pulls that off in spades; but it wouldn’t be deserving of recognition were it not also a great place to eat.
– Robert Peyton
THE NEXT GENERATION
Ted Brennan’s Decatur
309 Decatur St. / 525-7877
Expectations were already running high for Ted Brennan’s Decatur before its namesake patriarch suddenly passed away in 2016. It fell upon two of his children, Teddy Brennan and Bridget Tyrell Brennan, to carry on their father’s legacy. In August, their ambitious new restaurant opened for business, starting a fresh chapter in the ongoing story of New Orleans’s first family of fine dining.
The siblings were supported by a core group of veterans led by Executive Chef Lazone Randolph, who has been with the family since 1965. Several others have ties going back decades, an astonishing statistic for an industry known for its high turnover. Teddy credits his father for engendering such loyalty. “If dad instilled anything in me, it was a respect for people; for the employees as well as the guests,” he said. “They are the reason we do this; they make this all worthwhile.”
Step inside and the heritage is unmistakable. The menu is a study in pared down elegance. Dish names have changed and there are some modest refinements, but overall diners will slip into it like a comfortable dinner jacket. This includes their definitive turtle soup, whose recipe is a fiercely guarded secret. Built upon a blonde roux, it picks up its burnished mahogany hue in part from paprika and tomato paste. “And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you,” chef said.
For the full experience, consider Ted’s Breakfast, one of the most popular choices according to Bridget Brennan Tyrell. A champagne-based eye-opener leads into turtle soup. Next is a duo of egg dishes – Sardou and Bayou Bengals – followed by Crepes Fitzgerald for dessert. For dinner, Teddy’s go-to entrée is the Filet TMB – beef tenderloin stuffed with homemade Boursin, cracked peppercorns and finished with an orange and Cabernet wine reduction. “That was my dad’s favorite dish,” he says. Of course, no meal would be complete without Bananas Foster Blangé flamed tableside. “We changed the name to pay tribute to our original Chef Paul Blangé, who created the dish,” Teddy says. Their father would be proud.
– Jay Forman
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
4128 Magazine st.
323-2626 / saffronnola.com
New Orleans has a significant population of folks from the Indian subcontinent, but we don’t have a lot of restaurants serving the cuisine of that region, and none with the ambition of Saffron NOLA, which opened earlier this year as a full-time restaurant on Magazine street. I write “full-time” because previously the Vilkhu family operated Saffron NOLA only one night a week, in what appeared from the outside to be a nondescript space in a strip mall in Gretna. The interior was far more elegant, giving diners a hint of the sort of food they’d soon be tasting.
Both restaurants grew out of a catering operation that chef and pater familias Arvinder Vilkhu and his wife, Pardeep, ran as a side business for many years – long enough for their two children, son Ashwin and daughter Pranita, to become involved. That family connection hasn’t changed. Indeed, all four members of the clan are now directly involved in the eatery – Pardeep as the director of catering, Ashwin as the general manager and director of marketing and Pranita as the front of house manager and director of finance.
Arvinder, the executive chef, studied the culinary arts formally in India and thereafter worked in Singapore. Since moving to New Orleans he has been the general manager of the Pickwick Club. The rest of the family is no less distinguished; Pardeep is a psychologist, Ashwin has a master’s degree in hospitality, restaurant and tourism from UNO and is a certified master of spirits, and Pranita has a master’s in business administration.
But what’s important about a restaurant is the food, and the food at Saffron NOLA is outstanding. It’s unmistakably Indian, but incorporates ingredients and techniques from European, Asian and American traditions as well.
The roasted oysters are perhaps the best example of how chef Vilkhu has married his disparate influences into a cohesive whole. The dish is essentially a variation on char-grilled oysters, but at Saffron the seasonings include ginger and it’s served with naan bread fresh from the tandoor oven. Subtle changes, but effective.
There are a number of other dishes that integrate local ingredients and recipes into the Indian canon – the curried seafood for example – but the heart of the menu is authentically Indian, with dishes like goat masala, pork vindaloo and a dal that changes daily. The new space also includes a real tandoor oven, meaning the naan and other breads are now cooked in-house.
The beverage program is another area in which Saffron NOLA shines. The cocktails on the menu are thoughtful and pair well with the food – no surprise with Ashwin’s background in the area.
It’s also a beautiful place, with soft lighting and warm colors dominating the design. Imported fabrics on the walls soften the space further, and even when it’s crowded (and it’s pretty much always crowded,) it’s not too loud.
Saffron NOLA is one of the best restaurants to open in New Orleans in recent memory. It is justifiably crowded every night.
– Robert Peyton
BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT
El Pavo Real
4401 S. Broad Ave / 266-2022
Now and then you find a restaurant that serves comforting food with some ambition, and you want to return again and again. It’s not all that important what kind of food the restaurant serves, just that it feels like something you’d get at a home, albeit the home of someone who loves to cook and does it well.
El Pavo Real is that sort of place. It’s a neighborhood restaurant run by a husband and wife team – Mario Aranda and Lindsay McLellan – the former from Oaxaca and the latter with long experience at the Esplanade Avenue restaurant Lola, who’ve looked to put down roots in Broadmoor.
The restaurant is located at the juncture of Napoleon Avenue and Fontainebleau Street, in a space that was once a Time Saver convenience store. There’s no indication from the current layout of the building’s former life; there’s now a large, open dining room with ample light from windows on two sides, a bar towards the back and a semi-open kitchen that is actually bigger than it would appear possible when viewing the place from outside.
McLellan, a sister-in-law of our own Managing Editor, has found the right balance between chef-driven food and the soul of the cuisine she’s cooking. Tortillas are made in-house, as are the tamales, salsas and one of the best mole poblano preparations you’ll ever taste. The tacos are outstanding, of course, and the chicken soup is a revelation with its mix of chiles, mirliton, potatoes and lime.
Translated literally from Spanish, El Pavo Real means “the royal turkey,” but it’s actually an idiom for “peacock.” It’s an amusing name, and it strikes me as perfect for a restaurant that takes food seriously, but not so seriously I’d be worried about bringing children to dine there. That combination of excellent food and a welcoming atmosphere is why we’re naming El Pavo Real our favorite Mexican restaurant of 2017.
– Robert Peyton
SWEET SHOP OF THE YEAR
4525 Freret St.
493-5999 / PiccolaGelateria.com
Bronte Pistachios from Sicily. Amarena cherries from Modena. Caramelized fig and Valrhona chocolate… It’s not often that a dessert made with less fat can blow the competition away, but such is the case when you use ingredients like these. And this is what you will find at Piccola Gelateria, a jewel box of a sweet shop on Freret Street. “It’s a mixture of passion, ingredients and technique that goes into our gelato,” says Ria Turnbull, who owns the shop with her chef husband Ross. “There is nothing better than seeing our customers smile when they taste those flavors.”
Now entering its second year, Piccola offers the best gelato in town. The look and feel was inspired by the couple’s career travels to Florence, Italy. The gelato is made in the Bolognese style, which is differentiated by the inclusion of egg yolks in the base for many of the flavors which adds an extra layer of richness. But vegans don’t despair – their sorbettos are completely non-dairy and fat free – and with the intensity of the 70 percent chocolate, rest assured you won’t miss a beat.
– Jay Forman
CONCEPT OF THE YEAR
Craft Beers and Spirits
Craft brewing and distilling finally makes it to NOLA
For many years there was a party going on all over America, except in New Orleans and Louisiana. The remedy has been slow in coming, but the Craft Brewing and Distillery movement has finally broken through in America’s best party city.
Justin Boswell, Brewmaster at Wayward Owl Brewing Co., noted, “New Orleans is such a great food town, we felt there needed to be a local brew that was up to the challenge. And it had to be New Orleans through and through, which is one of the reasons we established our brewery in the old Gem Theatre in Broadmoor on Thalia.”
New Orleans and the region have only recently created a suitable presence in the new world of micro and mini operations to distill adult beverages. The reasons we have not been able to play in the Big Leagues in producing spirits and beer are both historic and legal.
Most of the states who are doing great work in the micro-brewing field are to our west. These states did not bring a lot of historic baggage from the Prohibition years. And those western states did not have major breweries who operated taverns, a practice which became a detriment when the big breweries and distribution companies moved into the industry after the repeal of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Louisiana laws regarding the manufacture of alcoholic beverages needed updating to allow distilleries and breweries, ready with the newest technology and techniques, to begin operations. Some of those laws were indeed updated. Not all.
But it got us to the point where we now have a respectable representation of the distilling and brewing art operating within our borders. We were late to the party but we are finally having a dance.
According to Kirk Coco, president, New Orleans Lager & Ale, NOLA Beer and NOLA Distilling, “The new market dynamics of making and selling adult beverages, and the more efficient equipment available, have enabled our breweries and distilleries to play catch-up in a very short period of time. It is amazing how far New Orleans has come, and how quickly.”
– Tim McNally
3605 S. Carrollton Ave.
482-3935 / FiveHappiness.com
Five Happiness is an Asian wish for good luck, prosperity, a long life, happiness and wealth. For more than 30 years in New Orleans, Five Happiness Restaurant has been providing several other wishes to local diners, including excellent Asian cuisines, reasonable prices in a comfortable setting.
The restaurant inevitably ends up on diners’ polls not just as the best Chinese and Asian restaurant in town, but as one of the best restaurants of any cuisine type. Five Happiness paints Asian cuisine with a broad stroke. There are the quite-good reduced price/quickly served luncheon platters featuring soups, vegetables, fowl, seafood, and meat.
Then, into the evening the entire and complete menus are more involved and richer in texture than standard Chinese restaurant dining fare. Hunan Shrimp and Beef are popular, along with beef and chicken in a hot garlic sauce, or the Moo Shu Pork. The Sweet and Sour chicken or pork are stand-out favorites. Other “usual” items are pot stickers, crispy whole fish and sizzling jumbo shrimp.
Often overlooked is a satisfying and creative full bar offering of drinks and cocktails. Many of the cocktails are not just excellent but they are beautiful to behold. The Fog Cutter, Singapore Sling, Navy Grog, Mai Tai and shared Tiki Bowl slip across the line from Asian to Tiki.
This level of quality, comfort and service is all the more amazing because New Orleans is not home to a large Chinese population, and the overriding local concept of “the best (fill in the blank with whatever cuisine you are discussing) comes from my momma’s kitchen,” really does not apply here. It has not applied for over 30 years at Five Happiness which has been recognized over and over again as the standard bearer in New Orleans.
– Tim McNally
RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEAR
Bayona / 430 Dauphine St. / 525-4455 / Bayona.com
Mondo / 900 Harrison Ave. / 224-2633 / MondoNewOrleans.com
Rosedale Restaurant / 801 Rosedale Dr. / 309-9595 / RosedaleRestaurant.com
“It was the music of New Orleans. It spoke to me.”
Susan Spicer, one of our town’s most beloved, talented and appreciated chefs, was relating how she came to New Orleans and what guided her. Today, as the proprietor of three highly-acclaimed dining establishments, she continues that journey which defines her career.
An apt term for Susan is Restaurant Whisperer. “Each of the places I have started and owned, has spoken to me. I hear them expressing their individuality. The idea of taking a single theme and applying it to multiple addresses is not how I roll.”
Bayona in the French Quarter is a different, more upscale dining experience from the casualness of Mondo and Rosedale, both in Lakeview. Susan notes, “There are similarities. We strive for the same quality goals in cuisine and in service, but the self-expression of each place guides me and also excites me.”
Susan’s talent in cooking and restaurant management was not always a thing in her life. She is, to be sure, devoted to her craft, hard-working, creative, curious, generous, detail-oriented and a team player. The only aspect of her well-rounded resume which can come as a bit of surprise is that from an early age being a chef and operating a restaurant was not in the picture. She is in the culinary world, technically, a late-bloomer.
But hospitality was in her genes, likely due to her big family and helping her mother and father prepare the meals for the table. If the ideas of being an executive chef and operating restaurants were ever in her mind, those were well-hidden choices.
As with all great chefs, there were important influences. In the late 70’s, Susan found work at the Louis XIV restaurant where she worked under French Chef Daniel Bonnot. “He was tough, with a short fuse, and it forced me to do a better job than I thought I could do. Surprisingly, I found that I liked the craft and I enjoyed learning.”
Another big influence in Susan’s career is her partner in Bayona, Regina Keever. “Here was someone who was more than a business partner, she guided me into greater success than I was likely to achieve on my own,” Susan humbly notes.
It’s a valid observation that Susan learned restaurant management in the same way she learned how to be a chef: hands-on. But, of course, first one must have the desire and the dedication, and what follows is experience and sound judgement. Susan attended the University of New Orleans but soon yearned for the alternative, the School of Hard Knocks.
She graduated from the latter Cum Laude and continues to dazzle on both sides of the swinging kitchen door. Her gracious Southern charm is lagniappe to an all-star personality and talent.
Susan has been inducted into the James Beard Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. She is a multiple James Beard Awardee, winner of the Mondavi Culinary Excellence Award and the prestigious Ivy Award; inducted into Nation’s Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame, and the Culinary Hall of Fame.
– Tim McNally
MIXOLOGIST OF THE YEAR
Latitude 29 / 321 N. Peters St.
609-3811 / Latitude29NOLA.com
“I’m from Jacksonville, Florida and have always loved the South. I just did not realize how much until I spent some time in New York City.”
On such rationales, entire lives are determined, fates sealed and careers assured. Kimberly Patton-Bragg had to leave her home region to find out how wonderful it is. Then she and her husband spent some time in New Orleans. That was the Game Changer.
On coming to live in New Orleans: “We could not believe this place. People kept telling us how great the city was, but not really as a place to live. Yet here was everything we wanted: history, music, culture, the cuisine, the people, and a love of well-crafted cocktails that you experience in very few places. Very few
On the cocktail scene: “New Orleans is easily on the same level of professionalism as New York but the people of New Orleans are warmer, more hospitable.”
“I love what I do. I am at the center of the scene every night. And in New Orleans, I am happy to challenge myself to stay current and relevant, but the truth is this town does a good job of keeping me on my toes and on top of my craft.”
While a lot of what Kimberly prepares are old standards, her latest gig at Latitude 29, Jeff Berry’s destination bar and restaurant has placed her in the position to learn new tricks. “Tiki drinks are among the most complicated to make. Call Tiki the ‘Dark Arts,” if you will. The multitude of ingredients has to remain balanced, not always the easiest of tasks. It also means that with just a little variation, I can make a whole new drink.” – TM
– Tim McNally
SEAFOOD RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
105 Metairie-Hammond Hwy
Metairie / 345-2936
Kale Salad with goat cheese, grilled corn, sweet onion, tomatoes, pistachios, and roasted poblano vinaigrette
Crabmeat topped Soft Shell Crab with Asparagus and Potatoes; Old Fashion Rum Punch
On the edge of Bucktown and the 17th Street Canal a bounty of seafood places beckon. But there is one that stands apart from the crowd: Station 6. Helmed by the husband-and-wife team of Allison Vega-Knoll and Drew Knoll, this restaurant recently entered its second year with an expanding menu and a terrific under-the-radar brunch. The menu is distinguished by seafood choices that are regional but relatively uncommon in these parts, such as the Seared Pompano basted in a curried brown butter sauce and cracked stone crab claws with house-made aioli (served in season). Credit Drew Knoll, whose experience with local seafood purveyor Craig Borges gives him an insider’s edge on sourcing.
But more than anything else it is the skill set of the kitchen’s veteran team that makes this place hum. Station 6 puts a tight focus on execution and the results stand out. “The other night a customer came in and said he loved our restaurant because you get white tablecloth food in a causal setting,” Allison Vega told me, and I couldn’t have put it better myself.
– Jay Forman