Chef/owner Scott Snodgrass and owner Lee McCullough at One Restaurant and Lounge.
It is an uncommon piece of fortune for a food columnist to chance upon so volatile a subject as cupcakes. But such was my luck, evidently, when I took up its discussion a couple of months ago in this space. In my two years of writing about food for this magazine, I’ve never had nearly so many comments, objections or testaments of love or betrayal. It would seem that cupcakes are a galvanizing agent, and on that note, let me touch briefly upon another that will hopefully spur a few barroom fights and perhaps a university symposium or two: bagels.
I have harped on my New York standards for certain food staples in the past here (evoking the birthright of anyone hailing from the Empire State), but when it comes to bagels, I have largely just thrown up my hands. When one of my Bay Area transplant friends pronounces all of the local bagels he has tried to be unacceptable, you know things are looking bad.
So it was with great cynicism that I tried The New York Bagel Co. (3923 Magazine St.)—it’s name alone being an affront to my sensibilities. But it was in walking distance from my house, occupying the expansive digs that once housed Kelsey’s, so I thought, what could be the harm?
It is with cautious optimism that I now report these bagels are actually quite good. I cannot confirm that they follow the proper prescription for bagel preparation (boiling before baking), but the crust (or shell, if you will) is just shy of the requisite level of crispiness, the inside is chewy yet supple and the toppings are well administered.
Other signs put me immediately in mind of a proper New York bagelry: the bad FM radio playing over the house speakers, the bad coffee, the poor juice selection—and I’m feeling pangs for a sesame bagel with light cream cheese as I type this. There are, however, caveats: the unforgivably named Twin Towers sandwich (has no one yet noticed this egregious lapse of taste and commented on it yet to the management?), the confusing line structure when ordering, and the mysterious lack of bagels in the bins behind the counter which require clerks to make frequent (and sustained) trips to the kitchen. Then there is the consistent abuse of the apostrophe on the menu. A piece of advice for all restaurateurs: You spend thousands on signage and other non-food items to stock up your venue, so why not give some poor graduate student in literature 50 bucks to put together a grammatically correct menu? They’re out there in droves. Help them, and yourselves, out. I implore you.
Among a number of new eateries that have opened in the past six months, perhaps the most chattered about (at least in my circles) has been One Restaurant and Lounge, which occupies a small and unassuming space in the Riverbend area (8132 Hampson St.). Rumors of its greatness have not been exaggerated, as I can confirm from two recent visits where I had occasion to sample about two-thirds of a rapidly changing menu.
One’s tiny space is disproportionately loud—this is no place to take a girl to give her a ring, or break up with her, for that matter—but it is enormously conducive to bringing a group of friends with whom you can pass around plates of inventive fare. And this food goes in some pretty disparate directions. At one end, you have the New England-y spicy lobster bisque with lobster dumplings. The dumplings were a crispy and inspired counterpoint to the cream-rich bisque—alas this dish was gone by my second visit. Then there are the Asian-inflected dishes such as lobster and foie gras wonton with a shiitake mushroom and water chestnut ragout and marinated cucumber and Alaskan snow crab salad with a soy-ginger vinaigrette. There’s also some pretty straightforward French, as in the sublime coq au vin with savory bread pudding, served with a sharply spiced, housemade chicken sausage (at least on one visit), along with a creamy wild mushroom pâté. And don’t even let me get started on the pitch perfect cochon du lait.
Despite these varying directions, chef/owner Scott Snodgrass and owner Lee McCullough weave it all together with only a few missteps (the char-grilled oysters with Roquefort cheese starter might find a less assertive cheese, for instance), and the open kitchen makes for an extremely what-you-see-is-what-you-get-feel. There’s so much about One to love that I found myself picking disproportionately at its relatively few flaws: ugly ceiling fans in the dining room, while posh lighting adorns the kitchen; bringing a DJ into the already too-loud and cramped space; and a limited wine list. Like any new restaurant, One needs time to sort out its hiccups, but that still hasn’t stopped it from ingratiating itself with almost everyone who has tried it, particularly me.
Beaucoup de Beard
The 2005 James Beard Foundation finalists have been announced, and New Orleans has received a comparatively large share of the bounty this year. In the Best Southeast Chef column, both Greg Sonnier of Gabrielle and John Besh of Restaurant August have been nominated. Emeril’s wine director Matt Lirette is up for the Outstanding Wine Service Award, while Galatoire’s is up for the Outstanding Restaurant Award. Slightly more peripherally, Rick Bragg, late of these parts, is up for the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award for his piece “Back to the Bayou,” which originally appeared in Bon Appetit. Winners will be announced on May 2 in New York.
A New Shade of Blue
Having spent some months in transition following the departure of chef Brack May (who is now off to Miami to open his own venue), Cobalt (Hotel Monaco, 333 St. Charles Ave.) finally has a new steward in David English, who returns to New Orleans after spending some time in kitchens around Spain and France. (The California native previously did a stint at Bella Luna). English arrives at the helm of a slightly revamped eatery—the entire front area is now a bar and lounge geared at casual dining, while the once ghettoized rear dining room has now been smartly appointed with cozier furnishings to accommodate diners looking for a quieter and slightly more formal meal.
English made a strong first impression with a radish and smoked rainbow trout gazpacho, a non-menu item that he’s presently only offering as an amuse bouche, and he’s shown heft in his own take on barbecue shrimp with grit “fries,” crispy skin duck breast with confit dirty rice and a slow-roasted rack of lamb. I have been cautioned to note, Cobalt die-hards, that Brack May’s fried chicken and waffles will not be leaving the brunch menu, though its enduring popularity among some diners does baffle me a bit.
Wine and Dine
Finally, be sure to catch what you can of this year’s New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, May 25 to 29. My friend Michael Green will be leading three seminars this year, having taken a somewhat more active role in the fest’s architecture over years’ past (his talk on Spanish wine should be particularly interesting), and the aforementioned Matt Lirette will be leading a talk on pairing white wines with red meat. Get all the particulars at www.nowfe.com. •