Best of Dining
New Orleanians think about and enjoy food… a lot. We plan lunch while eating breakfast, think about dinner while enjoying lunch, and constantly compare notes on which new restaurant, tavern, sweet shop and more to check out next. For our December issue, our trio of restaurant writers, plus our editorial staff, gathered to choose a select few to honor for the year…a discussion that could go on and on. Narrowing the choices may have been a challenge, but we made all selections with no reservations.
BEST TRADITIONAL FRENCH
Couvant Bar & Brasserie
317 Magazine Street, 324-5400, Couvant.com.
There was a time when French cuisine was the apex of fine dining, but in the last 20 or 30 years, a revolution in the food world brought other world cuisines to the forefront, and chefs began to abandon French recipes.
It was a sea change, and largely to the benefit of diners, but French food was on top for a reason, and it’s fantastic to see a new restaurant serving serious French fare on the scene. That restaurant is Couvant Bar & Brasserie, in the Eliza Jane hotel, where chef Brad McDonald hews to a classic bistro menu, executed with reverence and flair.
The menu is divided into four sections: Amuse, First Course, Main Course and Sides, and McDonald has chosen to focus on a select number of dishes rather than trying to run the gamut of the repertoire. Because McDonald has chosen wisely, however, one never feels limited.
The standards are here: Pissaladiere, the caramelized onion tart with anchovies; escargot with parsley butter; a quiche that changes daily and moules frites, the traditional pairing of the shellfish with fries. At dinner there are two choices for the beef in the “steak frites,” filet or onglet, the flavorful cut we call “hanger steak.”
Dining at Couvant reminds one why French cuisine gained its reputation, and thus we’re delighted to name Couvant the French Restaurant of the Year for 2018.
– ROBERT PEYTON
MIXOLOGIST OF THE YEAR
Jewel of the South, 1026 St. Louis Street.
It is often said that you either “get” New Orleans or you don’t. Many who don’t, complain endlessly about the strange idiosyncrasies of life in the city. Those unhappy souls eventually leave.
But for those who embrace a lifestyle that is not fully American, the joy of being an actor in a big production is unending. Even hurricanes can’t chase these willing participants away.
Chris Hannah arrived in town in 2004. He had roamed to many places thanks to his father’s assignments in the Navy. He knew very early in his New Orleans’ life that he was never leaving this place. He did indeed have a role to play, sometimes even in costume.
His career goal was to participate in the hospitality industry, likely as an innkeeper. But the fulfillment he personally felt in preparing proper cocktails and the atmosphere he enjoyed from being one of the people who was at the center of the party every night was too much to leave. For 14 years, a remarkable span of time in an industry renowned for staff movement, the French 75 bar at Arnaud’s suited Chris perfectly.
He has recently co-invested with master cocktail craftsman, Nick Detrich, in a new project, an authentic Cuban-style watering hole, Manolito, 508 Dumaine Street, which has become for Chris an opening act for his and Detrich’s showpiece place, a rebirth of a legendary cocktail destination, Jewel of the South. This is the year that the curtain goes up on Jewel.
– TIM MCNALLY
CHEF OF THE YEAR
Baru, 3700 Magazine Street, 895-2225
Basin Seafood and Spirits, 3222 Magazine Street, 302-7391, basinseafoodnola.com
Brasa Churrasqueria, 2037 Metairie Road, 570-6338, brasachurrasqueria.com
Zocalo, 2051 Metairie Road, 252-9327, zocalo-nola.com.
Edgar Caro came to New Orleans to study graphic design in college, but before long he fell in love with our food culture. He opened his first restaurant, Baru, when he was 24 and missing the food of Cartagena, his home town.
Chef Caro has no formal training; he’s learned by doing. He’s not apologetic about being self-taught because he has memories of his grandmother’s cooking, and that gives him a base of experience that few chefs – regardless of their training – can match. Still, opening a restaurant at that age was a gamble, and chef Caro admitted to me that he didn’t really know what he was doing at the time.
He had issues finding ingredients initially, but worked with local Latin grocers and visited farmers’ markets to get the products he needed to do Columbian food justice. He developed recipes on the fly in the kitchen when he opened Baru, which he now recognizes was not the most efficient method.
“I’m still learning,” he told me, though at this point he operates four restaurants in the area: Baru, one of the only restaurants in the country that serves food from the northern coast of Colombia; Basin Seafood and Spirits, which grew out of the chef’s love of fishing; Brasa Churrasqueria, a South American steakhouse; and Zócalo, a more casual Mexican restaurant.
For a guy who didn’t know what he was doing, he’s done pretty well.
That’s because chef Caro combines determination and hard work with a passion for what he does. If you speak to him for any length of time, you’ll see him light up when talking about food and cooking. He’s still in the kitchen just about every day, too. His dedication has garnered loyalty from his staff; his team at Baru has been with him for 10 years or more, and he told me that the staff at Basin “puts their heart and soul” into the food they cook.
Chef Caro makes food that’s true to his inspirations, but he’s willing to be accommodating. He recently put fajitas on the menu at Zócalo, for example, because he wants to please his customers and he understands that a diner who comes in for something familiar might also try something different and learn from the experience. It’s the same philosophy that’s served him well at Baru and Brasa.
COOKBOOKS OF THE YEAR
Pascal’s Manale Cookbook and Chasing the Gator
It has been a big year for cookbooks, but there are a pair that stand out. More than a collection of recipes, these two take deep dives into the families and personalities of their subject matter. Together they contribute greatly to the body of knowledge that makes up our city’s culinary heritage.
In Pascal’s Manale Cookbook: A Family Tradition, author Poppy Tooker explores the colorful history of New Orleans’ second-oldest, continually operating family-owned restaurant, shedding light on the under-sung role Italian immigrants have played in the evolution of the New Orleans restaurant landscape. With a flavor palette featuring red sauce, anchovies and pasta, theirs is a comforting style of cooking more suited to the family dinner table than the opulent French Creole dining rooms of the Quarter. Detailed research, vintage photos, photography by Sam Hanna and the accommodation of the Pascal’s Manale family make the book come alive. Recipes for classics such as the original BBQ Shrimp, Stuffed Tufoli and their Combination Pan Roast are just a few of the highlights.
In Chasing the Gator, the focus shifts to Acadiana and the larger-than-life persona of Isaac Toups. Writer Jennifer Cole helps to channel Toups’ singular personality, regaling the reader with stories from hunting camps and backyard boucheries. We learn about the distinctions between Prairie and Coastal Cajun traditions and how each used what the land gave them to create some of the finest, most idiosyncratic cuisine in America. Recipes span the gamut, but this book is not recommended for vegetarians.
– JAY FORMAN
Fausto’s Bistro, 530 Veterans Memorial Blvd., 833-7121, Faustosbistro.com.
While large corporations dominate the restaurant scene nationally, diners in New Orleans correctly continue to patronize single-location, chef-driven, family-owned restaurants. Other cities seem to follow the bigger-is-better model. Around here such is not the case.
Fausto’s in Metairie is the perfect poster-child for the way things are and have been. Offering a menu that reflects the Old Country heritage of Mama and Papa, the Fausto brothers, Rolando and Fausto Di Pietro, every day live up to the way things were when they were growing up. Why mess with perfection in culinary choices?
Most of the recipes still featured are from their mother, and, while a few modifications have been made to expand the menu, the strong Italian and Sicilian family heritage of the brothers are reflected on every plate. The ingredients are authentic, and the preparation styles are essentially what these sincere restaurateurs have known all of their lives.
Many of the specialties have remained unchanged for 25 years. Arancini, eggplant in carrozza, veal vittorio, rigatoni melenzane, manicotti, fettuccini carbonara, veal saltimbocca, rigatoni nocerina, and the fettuccini carciofo, all put the diner of mind that the street in front of the restaurant is not Metairie’s Veterans Boulevard but rather could be the Viale Galatea in Palermo.
Most cities don’t have such dining emporiums where every dish properly honors a family’s name and legacy. Fausto and Rolando share their heritage every day.
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Saba, 5757 Magazine Street, 324-7770, EatWithSaba.com.
There are lots of reasons why Saba is special, many of which are unrelated to its cooking. Its parent company, Pomegranate Hospitality, was formed by Alon Shaya in the aftermath of his high-profile split with John Besh. From the start Shaya was clear on what he wanted to do. “We set out to create a safe and comfortable work environment for all of our team members. Empowerment, communication, accountability and equality… These are our priorities,” Shaya said. After taking over the former Kenton’s space, he turned it in just six weeks and Saba opened in full stride.
Shaya brought with him a core of employees. Among them was Jessica Retif, his former cocktail program manager who was promoted to the role of GM. “It was a whirlwind for sure,” Retif recalled. “A new space, a new company and a new role.” Another was Chef de Cuisine Cara Peterson, who runs the kitchen. Her immediate challenge was to distinguish Saba from the place they just left while still respecting Alon Shaya’s original vision. This was accomplished by broadening the menu’s purview. “At Shaya we had these preconceived notions about not using local seafood because we wanted a version of modern Jewish cuisine,” Peterson explained. “We put that aside when we started working on the menu for Saba. Instead of shying away from local seafood we’ve embraced it, along with other changes.”
The Louisiana blue crab hummus is a case in point. Paired with a warm butter and shallot sauce and an oft-changing seasonal accompaniment (in late fall it was beech mushrooms) this dish swiftly proved a to be a breakout hit. Another is the octopus with tomato and shawarma spices. Dishes that might read as ordinary are anything but here, thanks to the quality of the ingredients used in even the simplest of preparations. Hummus is made from Rancho Gordo chickpeas, and tahini comes from Soom – a woman-owned business out of Philadelphia. The feta is Bulgarian, distinctively brined so it is crumbly rather than creamy, with a vinegary note.
Peterson’s pantry unlocks a world of spice, taste and flavor that, for most diners, is wonderfully unfamiliar. “We use nigella seeds, black caraway, Persian lime, paprika and rosebuds,” she said. “We also have date molasses, pomegranate molasses, carob molasses … every kind of molasses you can find really.” There is lots of crossover with the bar program, so many of these flavors appear in cocktails, reinforcing the connection to the food.
The hardest part about dining at Saba, other than getting a reservation, is choosing between an array of smaller plates or committing to a family style entrée. Either way you can’t go wrong.
CREOLE RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Neyow’s Creole Café, 3332 Bienville Street, 827-5474, Neyows.com.
Pillars of flame erupt from a charbroiled oyster station visible from Bienville Street. A life-size, apron-clad Sky Mall Bigfoot statue mixes with the crowd of people outside enjoying drinks. A block party atmosphere which carries over into the dining room… Neyow’s is a hard place to miss.
The restaurant got its start 25 years ago in owner Tanya Dubuclet’s home kitchen, where she began cooking meals to raise money for a family vacation to Astroworld. Katrina closed her first restaurant in Gentilly, but a few years later she started over with Neyow’s on the corner of Jeff Davis and Bienville. In 2016 they expanded, building out a larger space next door (Tanya’s husband Tim is a contractor) along with an event hall. It has been crazy busy ever since.
Equal parts Creole restaurant, poor boy shop and southern plate-lunch café, Neyow’s has something for everybody. “Most of these recipes were passed down from my grandmother,” Tanya said. The gumbo and shrimp etouffee are recommended, as are the stuffed shrimp and crawfish balls. Tuesday’s lunch special offers poor boys for $6.75 – a great deal. The sides, stuffing and dressing can make any meal feel like Thanksgiving dinner (try the carrot souffle). From the bar, their Bow Wow rum punch has developed a fearsome reputation. “If you just get the fruit punch, then you are safe,” Tanya said. “But if you order the Bow Wow, that’s the one that’ll get you.”
BUTCHER SHOP OF THE YEAR
Piece of Meat
Piece of Meat, 3301 Bienville Street, 372-2289, PieceofMeatButcher.com.
You can pretty much follow your nose to Piece of Meat, a sandwich/butcher shop on the corner of Bienville and North Rendon where owners Leighann Smith and Dan Jackson’s Black Warrior Smoker infuses the foot of Bayou St John with the scent of woodsmoke and brisket.
“Dan and I were both at Cochon Butcher when we decided to strike out and start selling meat on the sidewalk,” Smith said. “Dave (Demarest) from Bayou Beer Garden heard about us and approached us about opening a butcher shop. I told him I was down with that and here we are.”
A short list of specialty sandwiches includes the Not Turkey and the Wolfe’s Bologna (an inside joke as Smith and Jackson have supplied this signature cold cut since day one) made with thick-cut bologna, provolone, fried onions, lettuce and mayo on an onion bun with BBQ sauce. To sample a broader selection, tackle the charcuterie board which offers five meats. Seasonal sides such as tomato and watermelon salad, spiced with chili, red wine and vinegar, help balance things out. “Boudin Egg Rolls are our biggest seller, followed by the bologna sandwich,” Smith said. Catering options are also offered as well as an impressive case selection of steaks, chops, and smoked meats.
Piece of Meat helps round out a compelling clutch of destinations that include the Bayou Beer and Wine Gardens. Happy neighborhood residents can now spend a whole weekend without having to go beyond a one-block radius for all their sustenance needs.
RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEAR
Sylvain, 625 Chartres Street, 265-8123 sylvainnola.com
Meauxbar, 942 N. Rampart Street, 569-9979, meauxbar.com
Cavan, 3607 Magazine Street, 509-7655, cavannola.com
Longway Tavern, 719 Toulouse Street, 962-9696, longwaytavern.com
The single most defining ingredient in New Orleans’ culture is that there is no single ingredient. Our strong local culture is defined by many contributors who came to our area, lived their Old Country lives and assimilated into the melting pot that is south Louisiana.
Robert LeBlanc is the perfect poster boy for New Orleans culture. He loves this city. He is not on the sidelines observing; he is a player. Yet his heritage always plays a role in his endeavors which are literally all over the global map.
His roots in bayou country are French Catholic and even his name does not allow for denial of where his family’s allegiance lies. But wait. Then there’s the Irish side screaming for recognition. And there’s a bit of New England, which is not dominant, but just enough to be identifiable.
His restaurants play out these themes in strong fashion. Sylvain, located at 625 Chartres in the heart of the French Quarter just off Jackson Square, is named in honor of, and is the site of, the first opera staged in New Orleans, in 1796. It wraps its Spanish Colonial surroundings, dating from 1790, in a New York- sort of bar and restaurant vibe.
Meauxbar, at 942 N. Rampart Street, directly across from Armstrong Park, never forgets that at its root, it is named in honor of the small Cajun community, Meaux, just outside of Lafayette, Louisiana.
Cavan, 3607 Magazine Street, Uptown, takes its name from the Irish heritage of Leblanc’s grandfather’s native home county on the Emerald Isle.
And Longway Tavern, 719 Toulouse, was, in the early 1900’s, the home of husband and wife, Roark and Mary Bradford, writers, who slept during the day and worked at night. Their home was always open to those friends who did not want to end the evening and so took the “long way” home, passing the Bradford house for just one last drink.
The diversity of history suits LeBlanc’s projects. He is a private man, preferring to speak to the market about itself through his projects. Again, his love of New Orleans and south Louisiana lore and history is a tale told through food and drink evocative of who we were and who we wish to be.
Ro, as he is known to his many friends, or Ro-bear, as he is known to associates, does not put himself in the front. He is happy to let his American-European heritage take the credit for his success.