Best of Dining

Best of the Year: Restaurants, Chefs and More

We have done something new this year: We’ve expanded our annual Best Chefs issue to include lots more restaurants spanning 1s different categories. Surveys show that, by far, one of the favorite topics of New Orleans Magazine’s readers is eating. That suits us just fine because food is something we like to write about. In many categories the competition is intense, and the difference that puts one restaurant ahead of the other is slight. That is why we call our selections “Best of the Year,” allowing us to pinpoint something that made a difference within the last dozen months but holding open the possibility for new winners next year.

A committee consisting of our editors and our dining and spirits writers made the selections. For our purposes “new,” as in Best New Restaurant and Best New Chef, encompasses the period from October 2008, when the selections were made for last year’s issue, to the present.

So that old acquaintances will not be forgotten, we continue our Honor Roll category in which we spotlight a long-established restaurant. This year’s choice is headed by one of the area’s most colorful chefs. His restaurant just celebrated a significant anniversary.

We know that the competition is keen and in every category there are worthy contenders, yet we feel good about this year’s choices. All the more reason to try area restaurants, and to encourage all the “Bests” to be even better.
 

Latin Restaurant of the YEAR

Rio Mar
If you can’t decide which of the ceviches tempts you the most, order a sampler that includes all four. Chef Adolfo Garcia’s paean to seafood turns out the best Spanish and Portuguese cuisine in the city, offering a refreshing alternative to our predominately regional preparations. There is no other place like it. Save room for the Tres Leches dessert.

800 S. Peters St., 525-3474

Continental Italian Restaurant of the YEAR

Ristorante Del Porto
Until recently, Ristorante Del Porto was one of the few sophisticated Italian restaurants in the area not serving “Creole Italian” cuisine. Chefs David and Torre Solazzo opened the restaurant in 2002, and after moving to its current, larger location in downtown Covington, have continued to produce outstanding, contemporary Italian cuisine that consistently earns praise from diners and critics alike.

501 E. Boston St., Covington, (985) 875-1006
 

Classic New Orleans Restaurant of the YEAR

Antoine’s
After what has sadly been a typically disastrous experience with Hurricane Katrina and the rebuilding process, Antoine’s has bounced back to remain one of the classic restaurants in New Orleans and the U.S. With the newly opened Hermes Bar, which faces St. Louis Street, Antoine’s continues to grow without changing what New Orleanians love about the place.

713 St. Louis St., 581-4422
 

Vietnamese Restaurant of the YEAR

Hoa Hong 9 Roses
Ana and Jeff Nguyen, the owners of 9 Roses, opened the restaurant in 1996 with recipes from Southern Vietnam provided by Ana’s mother, and from the northern city of Hue that Jeff called home. The result is a huge variety of choices, and the menu also includes a healthy selection of Chinese dishes. Fresh ingredients and consistently outstanding.

1001 Stephen Court, Gretna, 366-7665
 

French Restaurant of the YEAR

Flaming Torch
Not to be confused with Creole or Cajun, we’re talking about the cuisines from the old country. Competition is growing in the category with at least two new French restaurants opening during the past year. For now we say oui to the tres interesting Flaming Torch and its splendid renditions of French Continental Cuisine. It would be hard to find a better Coq Au Vin anywhere east of Marseille.

737 Octavia St., 895-0900
 

Thai Restaurant of the YEAR

Chill Out Café
Cuisine you expect from a great Thai restaurant: Phat Thai, Phat Woon Sen, Curry, Pad See Ewe, Pad Kee Mao. Something you don’t expect: American breakfast. Dining Room full? Enjoy a table on the porch.

729 Burdette St., 872-9628.

Traditional New Orleans Italian Restaurant of the YEAR

Irene’s Cuisine
An outstanding example of how this city embraces classic cuisines and makes them her own. In this case, it’s Italian. The sturdy menu offerings are almost impossible to resist, but then there are the always-stunning Daily Specials. The only logical choice when dining at Irene’s is to do the “New Orleans Dinner Dance,” with each person at the table ordering something different, then sharing with everyone else.

539 St. Philip St., 529-8811
 

Chinese Restaurant of the YEAR

Royal China
Miss Shirley and her husband Teng keep their loyal customers happy with Chinese standards as well as the city’s best selection of Dim Sum. Kick back with some Chrysanthemum tea and pick and choose your way through the tempting picture book of tiny, savory dishes.

600 Veterans Memorial Blvd., 831-9633
 

Japanese Restaurant of the YEAR

Horinoya
Chef Komei Horimoto presides over the city’s most authentic Japanese restaurant. You won’t find crazy, Americanized rolls here; instead, the focus is on super fresh ingredients, carefully prepared and thoughtfully presented. Omakase tasting aside, the appetizer section of their menu is a treasure chest. The Saba Shioyaki (grilled mackerel) is wonderful, as is the Ankimo (steamed monkfish liver), which melts on the tongue like a delicate paté.

920 Poydras St., 561-8914.
 

Creole Soul Restaurant of the YEAR

Lil’ Dizzy’s
Folks gush about the gumbo, jambalaya and the bountiful brunches – all for good reason – but nothing tops Lil’ Dizzy’s classic fried chicken, a specialty of the Baquet family.

1500 Esplanade Ave. 569-8997

 

Middle Eastern Restaurant of the YEAR

Jamila’s Café
Moncef and Jamila Sbaa have the only Tunisian restaurant in town, so we’re lucky that our exposure to the cuisine of the North African nation is so good. Jamila, who runs the kitchen, works wonders with cous cous, spicy merguez sausage and the flaky “brik” pastries representative of Tunisian cuisine. Her husband Moncef is as gregarious a host as you’ll find. A combination of wonderful food and generous service.

7808 Maple St., 866-4366
 

Steakhouse Restaurant of the YEAR

Crescent City Steakhouse
Krasna Vojkovich and her sons Anthony and Frank are keepers of the flame at their white-tile-and-booth-bedecked Broad Street destination with an ambiance plucked from the early 20th century. To dine on their sizzling rib eye is to travel back in time. This unassuming steak destination is the opposite of the overblown iterations more typical of the genre.

1001 N. Broad St., 821-3271
 

 

 

Chef of the YEAR
Donald Link

Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Calcasieu, Herbsaint

2009 has been a good year for Donald Link. His restaurant Herbsaint has continued to hit on all cylinders. Cochon, the restaurant he operates with partner Steven Stryjewski, remains the go-to place for Cajun cuisine in New Orleans.

Cochon Butcher, a butcher and sandwich shop, and Calcasieu, an elegant but understated banquet space have both launched successfully. Finally, Real Cajun, the cookbook on which Link has been working for some time, was released to excellent reviews. Link has been remarkably successful in everything he’s tried, the result of hard work, a talent for cooking and an excellent sense for business.

Link grew up in Acadia Parish, and he has early food memories from his grandparents’ kitchens, as well as those of his extended family. That food – simple, hearty and honest – still influences his cooking today.

The influence is most apparent at Cochon. There, he and Stryjewski take Cajun and Southern food and present it in way that is both sophisticated yet still rustic. It is the kind of place at which you will find fried rabbit livers served with pepper jelly and fresh mint on toast, or “panéed” pork cheeks with goat cheese, arugula and a beet “rosti.” It is serious food, and with Cochon Butcher around the corner, where Link and staff produce both excellent sandwiches and artisanal cured meats, he has the block sewn up.

Herbsaint, Link’s first restaurant, is one of New Orleans’ finest. There is a somewhat continental feel to the tables that line St. Charles Avenue, and a reserved sophistication to the menu. House-made spaghetti with guanciale and a fried-poached egg is a magnificent take on pasta carbonara, for example. A confit of Muscovy duck leg is served over Louisiana dirty rice with a citrus gastrique to balance the richness. Link sources and serves excellent product, then respects it enough to let it shine through in every preparation.

Link began curing his own meats and making sausages before he had Cochon Butcher at which to sell them. Lucky diners at Herbsaint began sampling his products some time ago, but with his new operations he’s expanded dramatically. One look at the curing case at Cochon Butcher, filled with all manner of charcuterie, will tell you how seriously Link takes that craft. It is also apparent when you taste the products, which have a depth of flavor you can’t duplicate with mass-production.

Chef Link was first named Chef of the Year in 2002, and he’s the first chef to be so honored a second time. This year, however, there was little doubt that Donald Link deserved the award, and we are proud to name him Chef of the Year, 2009.

– Robert Peyton

Best New CHEF
Michael Stoltzfus

Coquette

There are many ways to learn a craft, but the journey has to begin with desire, opportunity and talent. Michael Stoltzfus found all three within himself, and he never really had to leave home. Thankfully for us, he did.

His childhood on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was based in agriculture. The family grew corn, alfalfa and wheat, had a small garden and raised about 100 head of cattle. Importantly, Stoltzfus’s mother was a fantastic baker.

While Stoltzfus was in college studying Web site design, Mom opened a small restaurant. It was a new venture for her and her son decided to help out. Neither one had ever been involved in restaurant operations before.

But the hospitality bug was biting, and soon Stoltzfus determined that this was the life he was meant to have. After a while, he moved on to the restaurant scene in Annapolis, worked his way into a manager’s role, then yearned for a little more excitement than the quiet Maryland landscape could offer.

At about the same time as he was envisioning a life in a restaurant, Lillian Hubbard, his significant other and today his partner at Coquette, gave him a book written by noted French chef, Alain Ducasse. Stoltzfus took one look and said, “I can’t do any of this.”

It is at this point in the story that New Orleans enters the picture. Hubbard’s parents had moved to the city just before Hurricane Katrina, and the kids liked what they experienced during visits.  After Hubbard’s college graduation in 2007, the road to New Orleans beckoned.

John Besh at Restaurant August saw something in Stoltzfus’ enthusiasm and brought him on board. The rest, as they say, is history. Stoltzfus learned well and yearned for his own place.

“When I first saw the building at Magazine and Washington, I was swept away. Never had I envisioned that I would own such a place, let alone be the executive chef,” says Stoltzfus. Hubbard takes care of the front of the house, while Stoltzfus handles the challenges of the kitchen.

Best of all, this young team makes it all work. In a very short time period, Coquette has taken its place among New Orleans’ excellent dining destinations.

Stoltzfus is really happy about Coquette and his adopted home. “The people of New Orleans like their traditions, and we enjoy placing a lot of adventure onto their plates and palates. Today, in this town, there is a broader range of ingredients and preparations than has ever been here. We are proud of our role in the new New Orleans dining scene.”

The name of the restaurant comes from Hubbard, who, during her years in France, was often referred to as a flirtatious and playful girl, a coquette. It is the perfect title for this ambitious bistro, where a young man and a young woman are living a dream on their terms.

On-the-job training, combined with talent and desire, can bring amazing results.

– Tim McNallly
 

Best New Restaurant
Chef Nathanial Zimet

Boucherie

Nathanial Zimet, the chef at this year’s Best New Restaurant, has a familiar story about why he’s in New Orleans. After a culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in Britain and Australia, he followed his girlfriend to New Orleans, where she was attending Tulane University. Apart from a return to his native North Carolina after Hurricane Katrina, he hasn’t really left since.

Zimet has worked in some of the best kitchens in New Orleans, among them Ralph’s on the Park, Stella!, the Bank Cafe and Iris. It was while he was in the kitchen at Iris that he decided to build the big “K&B purple” truck that first garnered him serious attention. The “Que Crawl” van became a fixture, often parked outside of Tipitina’s to feed hungry concertgoers barbecue, slow-cooked greens and grits fries.

In the summer of 2007 Zimet met James Denio, who would be his partner at Boucherie. A native of New Jersey, Denio also followed a girlfriend to New Orleans, and his background in the restaurant industry – he’s been working in restaurants in some capacity since he was 14 – was a point of connection for the two. They continued to develop Zimet’s business catering film and television commercial shoots, and that success allowed Zimet to make good on his dream to open a less-mobile operation. When Ian Schnoebelen decided to move Iris, he called Zimet, and with funding from Zimet’s father David, the dream became a reality.

The food at Boucherie is contemporary Southern, which to Zimet encompasses all of the disparate influences to be found on the menu. Zimet describes Southern food as based on outstanding ingredients, presented directly. As a result, even dishes that might not seem native to the deep South – hamachi sashimi with pickles for example – are, to Zimet, Southern. Certainly the brisket in his Pho is a connection to his roots, and a dish of Cushaw dumplings combines the locally grown squash with a soft, Chinese-style jacket to delicious effect. That said, most of the food served at Boucherie is recognizably Southern: a pulled pork cake with potato confit and purple cabbage slaw could easily be described as a deconstruction of the traditional barbecue sandwich. Excellent fries, seasoned with garlic and Parmesan cheese, show up to accompany a smoked Black Angus brisket in another outstanding dish.

Zimet has ambitions to open a fine-dining restaurant at some point, but it’s difficult to see him being pretentious about the food he cooks. “Fine dining for the people” is Boucherie’s motto, and Zimet and Denio take it very seriously. They are open to requests, and have been known to go off the menu completely when asked to prepare a vegan meal. That is a pretty amazing thing for a restaurant that features so much beautiful, beautiful pork.

Above all else, Boucherie is our choice for Best New Restaurant because there is passion displayed on the plate; we’re proud to honor that passion.

– R.P.
 

HONOR ROLL
Chef Andrea Apuzzo

ANDREA’S

This Jan. 21 will mark the 25th anniversary of the opening of Chef Andrea Apuzzo’s namesake restaurant in Metairie. Throughout the years, Apuzzo has witnessed the children of his very first guests grow up, marry and bring in children of their own. Birthdays, graduations and holidays – these are all popular reasons for guests to return to Andrea’s for his great Northern Italian cuisine. But perhaps the best reason is Apuzzo, who for so many guests is like family himself. Few chefs in the city are as closely associated as Apuzzo is with his restaurant. They are virtually synonymous. We are therefore pleased to present Apuzzo with this year’s Honor Roll award for his years of dedicated service.

Apuzzo was born and raised in Capri, Italy. “I grew up in a food family,” he says. “Two of my uncles were bakers, and I have four uncles in the restaurant business in Capri, and also in Buenos Aires and Northern Italy. Where I was from, they make you work as a little kid; it keeps you off the street. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: be a cook.”

Apuzzo traveled the world, working in such far-flung places as Bermuda, Switzerland, Germany and Argentina. In 1975 he came to the U.S., where he helped open the Omni International Hotel in Atlanta. He left there to work at the Royal Orleans in New Orleans in 1977. “As a little kid, I heard that America was the land of opportunity and I knew then I wanted to come to the United States,” he recalls. After helping boost the ratings of the Royal Orleans from three to five stars, in 1985 he fulfilled his lifelong dream and opened Andrea’s with the encouragement and support of his fans, friends and family.

Along with his duties in the kitchen, Apuzzo is very active in charitable work, partnering with such causes as Children’s Hospital and the American Heart Association. Schools are particularly important to him. “I do a lot of stuff with schools because education is very important to me. I go to the schools and usually do a cooking demonstration, and the kids love that.”

Northern Italian cuisine is trendy now in the city, with a small avalanche of new restaurants focusing on this heretofore underserved regional cuisine. But Apuzzo claimed this territory first. “I’ve been doing this for 51 years now,” Andrea says. “I tell my guests: My home is your home. Guests tell me they don’t feel like they are coming to a restaurant; instead they feel like they are coming to a home. This is what gives me such great satisfaction.”

– Jay Forman
 

 

MÂITRE D’ of the YEAR
Patrick Van Hoorebeek

Restaurant August

Larousse Gastronomique says the following about the maître d’hôtel: “A maître d’hôtel worthy of the name must be a chef in every sense of the word. He must have qualities of leadership, which will enable him to command the corps under his direct authority, and to command with courtesy. He must be a first class administrator and – no less important – a tactful diplomatist.” As fine dining has become more common over the last few decades, it has inevitably become more casual as well. The wider interest in good food has reaped benefits for restaurants and diners both, but the more casual attitude has left at least one casualty: the maître d’. Gone are the days when a single man was expected to play the role of host, sommelier, business manager and frequently, tableside chef.

While the duties of the maître d’ have been reduced in modern times, restaurants of a certain standard will always need someone to be the “ambassador” for the restaurant, and that’s a role Patrick Van Hoorebeek has played for almost two decades in New Orleans.

Van Hoorebeek was born in Belgium, and first came to the U.S. to reconnect with his father in 1985. After a series of restaurant jobs, he ended up at the Bistro at Maison deVille in August of ’87. By the time Katrina closed the Bistro, he had been the face and the soul of that restaurant for many years. When it finally re-opened, the Bistro decided to change direction and he moved on; first to Chef Tom Wolfe’s Peristyle, then to the Rib Room in the Royal Orleans hotel.

He has landed now in one of the finest restaurants in the city – Restaurant August – and is working with a chef whom he first met while both were working across Tchoupitoulas Street at the Windsor Court Hotel: John Besh. Restaurant August is an excellent fit for Van Hoorebeek, because it gives him a venue as expansive and sophisticated as his personality. It feels like a true home for him, and shortly after he arrived, he seemed to be in complete command of the menu and wine list.

In 2000, Patrick co-founded the Krewe of Cork, of which he has been named King for Life. The krewe has proven immensely popular, and has grown every year. It is yet another outlet for Van Hoorebeek’s love of wine and celebrations.

Van Hoorebeek’s true brilliance is that when you dine in a restaurant at which he works, you feel as though you are his guest, rather than a customer. That is because Van Hoorebeek gives people the sense that he has an ownership interest in the restaurant. That isn’t to say that he puts on airs; rather, he exudes an almost contagious sense of comfort and ease. Never obsequious, he clearly enjoys making others feel at home. For all of these reasons, we are pleased to name Patrick Van Hoorebeek Maître d’ of the Year for 2009.

– R.P.

BARTENDER of the YEAR
Daniel Victory

RITZ-CARLTON LOBBY BAR

“And that’s when my life really began …”

Do you know that moment in your life? Daniel Victory does.

To make some extra money while attending St. Charles High School in Laplace, Victory began working for a good friend’s parents, who owned a reception hall in eastern New Orleans. He found the prep work and even the clean-up around the bar area quite interesting.

This experience sparked his career, which took him to a job at the Fairmont Hotel (now The Roosevelt New Orleans), where he found himself in the thick of New Orleans events, including the 2000 presidential campaign festivities; dinners for George W. Bush and Al Gore (separately, of course); Carnival; conventions; and grand celebrations.

The romantic history of the Sazerac Bar and the education from New Orleans legend Mr. Tony guided Victory.

He joined the Marriott organization, and has been home at the Lobby Bar in the Ritz-Carlton for almost nine years.

Victory’s approach to creating and serving cocktails can be described as “holistic.” He thinks through the entire transaction, considering not only the incredible array of available ingredients, but also to whom he’s serving the drink.

“I like to make the connection. I enjoy when someone says ‘So, what do you think I would enjoy?’ because that means they are open and desiring some new experience.”

There is also a secondary yearning in his work. “New Orleans hasn’t received the respect she deserves. People in our industry talk about a lot of places where good work is being done, and we don’t seem to get our share of the glory.”

For that reason, Victory likes to create drinks and enter competitions. He isn’t only challenged by the effort, but he’s also pretty good at it. His recent international accolades for his creations came from two distinguished spirit brands, the Bombay Sapphire GQ magazine “Most Inspired Bartender” award for his creation, the Courtyard Cooler; and Esquire magazine’s “Benedictine Alchemist Search.”

Victory feels that his hometown isn’t doing enough molecular mixology, which is a blending of unconventional ingredients not usually found together or even considered “building blocks” in beverages.

“This is a very conservative town, and whenever I pull out the tarragon or the fennel, some people get concerned. But those kinds of fresh additives are where the profession is going. New Orleans will get there. I’m committed to putting us on the map.”

Daniel Victory is helping the cocktail evolve in our beautiful and exciting city, and it’s a great pleasure for those of us on the other side of the bar.

– T.M.
 

UNDER the RADAR
Chef Anton Schulte

Bistro Daisy

Driving along Magazine Street, a person could easily miss Bistro Daisy. Despite its cheerful yellow paint, this attractive cottage wedged alongside National Art and Hobby is easy to overlook. And much like this seeming contradiction, Bistro Daisy is an open secret. Despite its being awarded for this category, “Under the Radar” might be a misnomer, as the last few times I’ve been, the restaurant has been full – and happily so. Word-of-mouth is the engine that drives its reputation, and those in the know really love it. “We don’t have a lot of presence other than what the restaurant itself brings,” says Chef Anton Schulte. “But we do get a lot of repeat business.”

Owned and operated by Anton and Diane Schulte and named for their little daughter Daisy, this husband-and-wife team opened Bistro Daisy in August of 2007. Anton handles the kitchen and the gracious Diane handles the front of the house. His cuisine and her charm are the reasons guests keep coming back. Anton, who spent five years as Chef de Cuisine with Anne Kearney at Peristyle, describes his style as Louisiana-American Bistro: “I try and stay loyal to ingredients from the area, particularly seafood.” French and Italian figure strongly on his menu, along with regional influences like Shrimp and Grits. “After [Hurricane] Katrina a lot of people went to South Carolina and became familiar with this low country dish,” says Anton. “Because of that we keep a version of it on the menu. However, we do ours with roasted mirliton and it’s more assertively seasoned than people in the Carolinas would be used to.”

An appetizer of cool Lump Crabmeat in Horseradish Aioli, served with visually strikingly medallions of chilled beet, shows how he employs local ingredients in clever ways. Another starter of oysters poached in a licorice-y Herbsaint cream sauce reinforced by fennel, is particularly complex. Wild mushrooms, including chanterelles from the Northshore, appear in season, sometimes in pasta and a gift from a neighbor of local satsuma were recently transformed into sorbet. In addition, Anton cures his own pancetta, a process that allows him to skew the flavor profile in a way that complements its eventual use. For dessert, be sure to try their individually sized Baked Alaska, a sweet reinterpretation of the classic confection.

Along with the one handicapped space out front, Bistro Daisy does offer off-street parking at the corner of Nashville and Magazine streets. Bistro Daisy is dinner-only, Tuesdays through Saturdays.

– J.F.
 

COOKBOOK of the YEAR
POPPY TOOKER, EDITOR

Crescent City Farmer’s Market Cookbook

The past year has produced a healthy crop of cookbooks by famous New Orleans chefs and food personalities. But there’s one that stands apart from the crowd, notable because it isn’t the work of a single chef but, rather, the voice of an entire community. Part history lesson, part grassroots community effort – and all cookbook – this year’s Cookbook of the Year Award goes to the Crescent City Farmer’s Market Cookbook, edited by Poppy Tooker.

The book’s roots go back to the earliest days of the market. “The cookbook had been planned for and talked about virtually from the beginning,” says Tooker. “A lot of credit goes to John Abajian who was the first market manager, along with Richard McCarthy and Sharon Litwin, who started the market 14 years ago. John made sure from the beginning that every time a chef did a demo, he got a copy of the recipe and a signed permission slip. It was really quite remarkable how meticulous he was.”

The upshot of Abajian’s meticulousness is that Tooker eventually found herself with an extraordinary file of recipes to draw from, some of which were written in hand from chefs who are no longer with us, such as Jamie Shannon and Chris Kerageorgiou. “When I saw Jamie Shannon’s original Gumbo Ya-Ya recipe, written out longhand, it brought tears to my eyes,” says Tooker, “It gave me great pause and gave me a feeling of how important this work was that we were doing.”

Recipes in the book come not only from chefs, they also come also from the farmers and purveyors who sell at the market, along with its shoppers. For example, Jim Core of Taylor’s Happy Oaks Farm in Folsom offers an unusual recipe for jambalaya, which uses brown rice and kale. Another recipe by a market shopper serves up White Beans and Shrimp, using the fresh local catch of shrimper dynamos Kay and Ray Brandhurst. Along the way, Tooker seasons the descriptions with anecdotes and longer stories. This synergy between chef, purveyor and shopper creates a grassroots pastiche of the New Orleans dining and greenmarket scene. There is nothing else like it; the excellent forward by Alice Waters is lagniappe.

Fittingly, given the grassroots nature and independent spirit of their parent organization, Marketumbrella.org, the Farmer’s Market Cookbook is self-published and distributed nationally by Chelsea Green. Readers who buy it through their Web site (www.marketumbrella.org) can have Tooker personalize the book for them. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to benefit this local nonprofit organization, which helps mentor a surprisingly far-ranging roster of social justice-related food programs from Africa to Japan.

–  J.F.

 

Categories: Dining Features, LL_Feature

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