Best of Dining

New Orleans is a food town, with a dedicated population that holds on tightly to old favorite haunts, while embracing and celebrating new traditions and new faces.

For our annual December list of restaurant, food and drink “bests,” our team of writers, plus our editorial staff, met with the difficult task of honoring a few of our favorites. The restaurants, people and places listed within mark some of the best of the best for 2019. We look forward to what the menu has in store for 2020.


RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Sofia

The issue of “authenticity” in restaurants is a tricky one. Some people feel that any chef straying from a cuisine’s traditional recipes is cooking “fusion” food, a pejorative term in their minds. There’s nothing wrong with valuing our culinary past, of course, but ultimately what makes a restaurant great is outstanding food, drink, service and atmosphere. Whether a chef adheres to canon where food is concerned or takes tradition as inspiration is meaningless unless the experience is positive for the diner.

That said, when one dines at a restaurant that bills itself as serving the food of a specific country, one has certain expectations. At Sofia, an Italian restaurant which opened this year in the Warehouse District, those expectations are exceeded.

Sofia is not, strictly speaking, a regional Italian restaurant, or at least not a restaurant that specializes in one region. Executive chef Talia Diele’s menu includes dishes from all over Italy – the bistecca Fiorentina hails from central Italy, while the osso buco originated in Milan and “The Spicy” pizza features ingredients from toe of the country’s boot in Calabria.

The menu is divided into Antipasti, Secondi, Contorni (sides), Pasta and Pizza. There are around a half-dozen choices in each category – a few more where antipasti are concerned, and a few less contorni. It’s not a phone-book, in other words, but speaking for myself there wasn’t anything on offer that I wouldn’t order happily and there’s been nothing I’ve sampled that I wouldn’t order again.

The restaurant is named for Sophia Loren, a friend of owner (along with Denver -based Culinary Creative Group) Billy Blatty’s parents. Images of Loren by London-born and New Orleans-based artist David Gamble adorn the walls of the restaurant, whose décor overall is modern, yet comfortable. A huge wood-burning oven decorated with a tile mosaic to resemble flames dominates a corner of the dining room near the kitchen. The beverage program is overseen by Hope Clarke, who’s put together an excellent list of specialty and classic cocktails, beers and Italian wines. House-infused liquors and herbs are paired with prosecco and soda water for their “spritzes.” Service is attentive and knowledgeable, just what you’d expect from folks who’ve opened more than one successful restaurant. Sofia is a welcome addition to our dining scene, and a welcoming place in general.

Sofia
516 Julia St. / 322-3216 / SofiaNola.com

– ROBERT PEYTON

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT

Thalia

Thalia, a casual neighborhood spot nested in the Lower Garden District, is a built to serve multiple roles. Conceived by Kristin Essig and Michael Stoltzfus, it is intended to serve the community (they are nearby residents). It is also a corollary to Coquette, their fine dining flagship, and the two restaurants work together to share ingredients and reduce waste. Finally, with a simple operating model, it is also a talent incubator. “We see this as a platform for young cooks with talent and potential to help them learn not just about food but also about how to run a business,” Essig explained.

The space is warm and inviting, with cheerful yellow walls and a welcoming vibe. The menu is brief but wide-ranging in scope, though it touches often on the U.S. South. Consider the stuffed artichoke, split down the middle and packed with a mix of breadcrumbs and Pecorino-Romano cheese. Accompanying it is a garlicky brown-butter sauce brightened with lemon zest. For entrées, the barbecue shrimp takes a southern turn, swapping the beer for Coca-Cola and featuring boiled peanuts in the rosemary and homemade Worcestershire-spiked sauce. “We took this from a ‘No Menu Tuesday’ we did at Coquette,” Essig said. “It has a really nice sweet/salty balance.” Price points are very reasonable and nightly themed specials keep things fresh.

Thalia
1245 Constance St. / 655-1338 / ThaliaNola.com

– JAY FORMAN

BAKERY OF THE YEAR

Levee Baking Co.

There is nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread to liven an appetite. New Orleans has seen several excellent bakeries open in the last few years, and recently that number was increased by one that we feel worthy of naming Bakery of the Year for 2019: Levee Baking Co.

Like many new food ventures, Levee Baking Co. got started as a “pop-up” before settling into its permanent address in the Irish Channel. Baker and owner Christina Balzebre, a native of Miami, moved to New Orleans in 2005 and not long after began to indulge her love of baking at home with stints at Satsuma Café, for the Link Restaurant Group and at Willa Jean.

Balzebre is focused on quality, and that starts with the ingredients. While much of what she utilizes is sourced locally, she gets freshly milled flour from Carolina Ground, dairy from Mississippi-based Country Girl Creamery, and eggs and produce from local farmers. Regular offerings include a country-style bread, focaccia, assorted cookies, sweet and savory galettes and hand pies, croissants, buttermilk biscuits, cakes and more. Levee proves itself in the rising tide of new great bakeries.

Levee Baking Co.
3138 Magazine St. / 354-8708 / LeveeBakingCo.com

ROBERT PEYTON

CHEF OF THE YEAR

Rebecca Wilcomb

When Rebecca Wilcomb moved from Boston to New Orleans in 2008, she wasn’t intending to stick around; she was mostly seeking an escape from the frigid New England winters. “I think the plan was to stay a year,” she recalled, “but I ended up falling in love with the city.” New Orleans is the clear winner here. In 2017 she brought us a James Beard Award for Best Chef South and in 2019 she opened the doors to Gianna, her Italian restaurant in the Warehouse District. Because of these accomplishments, Wilcomb is our 2019 Chef of the Year.

Credit also goes to Donald Link’s restaurant group, with its strong history of identifying talent and shaping concepts around them for maximum effect. In Wilcomb’s case, it was on a trip to Italy with the Link Group in 2013 where the idea for an Italian restaurant began to take shape. Over the years (and subsequent trips to Italy) they coalesced into Gianna. Built around Wilcomb’s talents and named for her grandmother, Gianna is an expression of synergy. First and foremost are her Italian roots. “My cooking has always leaned heavily Italian in technique and style,” she explained. “My mother is from Italy and that whole side of the family still lives there.” Then there is a grounding in Louisiana roots. In this case, the Creole-Italian tradition. Finally there is the ethos and sourcing, which gets help through the restaurant group’s full-time forager. Put all these ingredients together and wrap them in a first-class buildout and you get one of the most exciting new places in town.

Wilcomb’s menu is broad, not focusing on any one region or style. Some aspects resonate, including the “Feed Me Menu,” which is a nod to both the sorely missed Tony Angelo’s as well as an established tradition of service in Italy. To sample dishes near to her heart, consider her “Giannina’s Tortellini in Brodo,” hand-filled pasta in broth (now is the perfect time, as this dish is a Christmastime tradition in her family). The “Eggplant Casseruola” is a nod to Tony Angelo’s “Eggplant Tina” – both dishes are cross-referenced by a similar dish found on travels through Campania, where they were seeking links between Creole-Italian and native Italian cuisine. All pastas are hand-made, and fans of veal will delight in her simple-but-satisfying “Veal Saltimbocca” with its salty kick from prosciutto and capers. Can’t decide? Order the “Feed Me” special. “There is something very relaxing about not having to make those decisions, right?” Wilcomb pointed out. “It feels good to be taken care of.”

Gianna
700 Magazine St. / 399-0816 / GiannaRestaurant.com

JAY FORMAN

COOKBOOK OF THE YEAR

The Deep End of Flavor: Tenney Flynn with Susan Puckett

Chef Tenney Flynn is the owner, along with Gary Wollerman, of one of the nation’s best fine-dining seafood restaurants. Since it opened in 2001, GW Fins has served fresh seafood in inventive, sophisticated dishes that highlight the inherent qualities of the products.

In recent years, chef Flynn has “taken a deeper dive” into seafood, learning to spear fish in the Gulf and often serving his catch in the restaurant. He’s an advocate for responsible management of our fisheries and for consuming fish often discarded as “by-catch.”

In “The Deep End of Flavor,” which he wrote with Susan Puckett, chef Flynn has delivered an outstanding cookbook. The “Fish and Seafood Primer” in the introductory portion of the book is worth the price alone for its clear explanations of how to choose fresh fish, break them down and the best method of preparation.

He emphasizes selecting seafood by quality rather than going to the market with a predetermined recipe in mind, and provides alternatives for many of the recipes in the book. The recipes are, of course, outstanding as well, and for all of these reasons we’re delighted to name The Deep End of Flavor our Cookbook of the Year for 2019.

– ROBERT PEYTON

HONOR ROLL

Tujague’s

Sometimes being second is not such a bad thing. In the case of Tujague’s, the restaurant, was established in 1856 and has been in continuous operation for almost 165 years, making it the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans. The phrase, “If only these walls could talk,” has never been more true.

At Tujague’s, what we once considered “common” dishes, like chicken bon femme, boiled beef brisket, and spicy remoulade, rose to incredible heights. The bar, at which there are no stools, created cocktail classics such as the grasshopper and whiskey punch. The place became a stopping point for dock workers and bankers alike.

Owner Mark Latter is the latest caretaker entrusted with the legendary restaurant. He was five years old when his father and uncle purchased Tujague’s. Recently he announced the restaurant would be moving seven blocks down Decatur Street towards Canal Street. This move will be the restaurant’s third in its history.

Making the move will be the vaunted kitchen, the mirrors in the dining room, and the staff. What won’t be making the move will be the bar and the bar-back, the narrow stairway and the view of the French Market; and we certainly hope the ghosts follow the culinary artwork and the team.

Clearly making the move though is the place’s worthiness to be at the top level of our honor roll.

Tujague’s Restaurant
823 Decatur Street / 525-8676 / TujaguesRestaurant.com

– TIM MCNALLY

COCKTAIL MECCA

Sazerac House

Every year at this time in this space, this magazine recognizes culinary achievement, long and special service to the community, innovation and excellence.

This year, we recognize all of the above and more. The Sazerac House is a loving culmination of over 180 years of New Orleans history, as told using our adult beverages as the central theme. But Sazerac House embodies, and this is very important, the story of our city told in a creative and visually-stunning fashion.

Sazerac House is in every definition of the modern term a museum of sizeable proportions. Everywhere in the 48,000 square-foot five-story structure, three of which are open to the public, are feasts for the eyes, treats for the palate and information overloads on multiple levels.

The building, constructed in the 1860’s, sat vacant on Canal Street at Magazine for almost 30 years. After touring the impeccably designed and restored historic space, the visitor will wonder, “Why did this structure lay fallow for so long?”

There are more interactive exhibits than the visitor will have time to participate in, and the topics range from spirits to cocktails to bitters to distilling to architecture to history and lore, to the evolution of place, New Orleans, which probably could never happen in this way again.

The world’s most authoritative bartender guide, Mr. Boston, is featured, answering the guest’s questions on what to use and how much in just about any cocktail imaginable. The most popular cocktails are made before your eyes by virtual bartenders who like nothing more than to make a drink of your choice and to add some friendly bar banter as you gaze on.

The first floor, which welcomes guests to the museum at no cost, features an impressive work of the distiller’s art, a column still which makes Sazerac Rye Whiskey, aging tanks and barrels, and a manufacturing and packaging unit for the invented-in-New Orleans Peychaud’s Bitters.

Multiple bars are open depending on days and crowds to assist the visitor in sampling the alcohol products under ideal conditions. These samples are available free and are served at the discretion of the staff. Ironically, cocktails cannot be purchased, only sampled.

Guided tours are available, or visitors can proceed at their own pace. Docents are easily found for questions without unwanted intrusions into the visitor’s time or space.

Yes, it’s about adult beverages, but the real story is about New Orleans.

Sazerac House
101 Magazine Street at Canal Street / 910-0100 / SazeracHouse.com

– TIM MCNALLY

BEST PIZZA

Bonci Pizzaria

We gained some big-league pizza cred over the summer when the acclaimed pizza destination Bonci opened just its third U.S. location right here in New Orleans. The Roman-style pies are made with a multigrain dough and topped with an ethically curated assortment of ingredients. The cashless, counter-service restaurant is as notable for its clean, forward-thinking design as well as its artfully presented food. Make your selections at the counter and the pizza is snipped to order, reheated and rung up by weight. This allows one to sample a variety of styles even for just a modest lunch break. Indecisive folks and the easily distracted never had it so good.

“What sets it apart is not just the ingredients but also the way our pizza is made,” General Manager Jeff Pizzetta said. “Our Castelli oven gives it that perfect crispness on the bottom and also that airiness in the middle.” It is indeed a distinctive crust, similar to focaccia without a comparable local style, making it unique. The sopressata version is popular, as is the potato and mozzarella. Seek out their more assertive selections such as ones featuring salty, umami-rich anchovies for full effect. Regarding locally influenced choices, they occasionally run a spicy shrimp and eggplant version, as well as an homage to the muffuletta.

Bonci Pizzaria
726 Julia St. / 766-6071 / BonciUSA.com

– JAY FORMAN

BEST CONCEPT

Picnic Provisions & Whiskey

Dining can create strong memories. The best memories of enjoying fine meals are often those hardest to replicate. The sensuality and easy access of New Orleans restaurants and events works to the advantage of culinary memories able to be repeated again and again. ¶ Picnic Provisions & Whiskey is a wonderful effort to not just preserve key memories but also to create new experiences. The three principals in the project, Tory McPhail, Darryl Reginelli and Ti Martin, all know a thing or two about growing up in New Orleans and savoring local foods, prepared in informal fashions, then dining under oak trees on blankets in parks and along bayous. ¶ Those memories are the very essence of Picnic. McPhail traveled the region seeking the best preparation of fried chicken. The outcome had to be the right result for New Orleans chicken connoisseurs, a truly challenging project. Reginelli knows take-out cuisine from his family’s long experience with culinarily excellent outlets located throughout the metropolitan area. Martin’s family history in the operation of fine restaurants was plugged in to assure the best experiences for patrons.¶ These three created not just a new concept in dining, but crystalized what we all hold sacred: food memories.

Picnic Provisions & Whiskey
741 State St. / 266-2810 / NolaPicnic.com

– TIM MCNALLY

 

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