Add Oretha Castle Haley to the roster of revitalized urban corridors that includes other members such as Freret and Oak. Of these, OCH’s gritty Central City location has presented the greatest challenge, and work is still ongoing. Still, with Primitivo grounding the Uptown end and the enigmatic question mark of Jack and Jake’s toward the CBD, it has a defined perimeter that’s filling in between these two poles, including The New Orleans Jazz Market, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and Café Reconcile – the granddaddy of them all – to name just a few. Setting aside the discussion regarding gentrification, one thing is certain: There are now more places than ever along OCH to find a good meal.
Primitivo, the most recent to open, arguably tipped the scale on OCH thanks in part to an ownership group spearheaded by respected restaurateur Adolfo Garcia. Heading up the kitchen is chef Nick Martin, who rose through the ranks of Garcia’s other establishments before taking the helm at this latest project.
The feel is rustic contemporary, with a large blown-out dining room separated from the bar to the right by a partial wall. Toward the back is a vast open kitchen anchored by a beast of a hearth fired by all-natural lump coal. The engine of this restaurant, the hearth informs even its name, Primitivo, which refers to the elemental cooking and curing techniques with which Martin builds his menu.
Live fire, drinks and the camaraderie of the barbecue pit sparked the concept. “We wanted to get away from frilly, fancy restaurants,” Martin explains. “What do we want to do on our days off? We like to cook. And we like to cook like this.”
Despite its Paleolithic inspiration, Primitivo is decidedly not a steakhouse; it’s something more. The hearth may be primitive, but the food is not. The menu, unlike that of a steakhouse, is a nuanced balance of vegetables, seafood and meats with an emphasis on shareable dishes. “Shared dishes lead to more discussion and interaction,” Martin says. “I am a big proponent of the family-style concept.”
From the sharable right side of the dinner menu, consider the Whole Roasted Chicken. Prior to service the bird is spatchcocked and smoked at low temperature for two hours until done. When the ticket comes in, the kitchen fires the chicken back up on the grill, crisping the skin, then plating it alongside cornbread salsa with seasonal tomatoes and greens. The result is a chicken that’s a go-to dish rather than the obligatory afterthought it all too often can be on other menus.
Martin has a talent as well for coaxing flavor out of less expensive ingredients. “It is real easy to put a rib eye on a plate. It is a nice product,” he says. “Other than overcooking or over-seasoning it, there isn’t much you can do to screw it up. I like to take something more challenging and make it nice.”
His smoked mullet appetizer is a case in point. A fish typically held in low regard gets special treatment here. Martin gets them in whole and cures them overnight to pull out the moisture. The fillets are then smoked. The result is a fish that’s firm, smoky and unctuous in a way that most people would never associate with mullet. Tripe, too, is an ingredient Martin keeps on the menu and also one that has sold unexpectedly well. “Once again it’s taking something that might not be delicious on its own and then coaxing flavor out of it,” Martin says.
Primitivo’s “Happiest of Hours” runs 3-6 p.m. during the week. Going into fall, look for Martin to expand the shared entrée section.
Just across the street from Primitivo is Casa Borrega, a joyously eccentric gathering place with a distinct vibe that’s a direct extension of its owner, artist Hugo Montero. Equal parts restaurant, music club, coffee shop and community center, Casa Borrega serves as a lodestone that draws together guests from all around the neighborhood.
Casas Borrega is also one of the few authentic Mexican restaurants in the city. More specifically, the menu draws from the cuisines of Vera Cruz, Puebla, Oaxaca and Mexico City, with the use of corn (especially blue corn) serving as a common thread.
Get your feet wet with an order of the Tamales del Dia, cooked in a banana leaf and served with thin, tangy Mexican crèma. The Chicken Tinga is stewed down into glorious shreds with a bit of bite from chipotle pepper. The Esquites make a nice bar snack and try a side of the vegan grilled nopalitos and cebollitas. The bar offers a terrific selection of tequilas, which owner Montero will be happy to tell you about, and non-alcoholic choices include a refreshing cinnamon-spiked horchata. Outdoor seating in the art-filled patio to the rear is a plus.
Finally, Purloo, the exhibition kitchen and southern foodways tutorial grafted onto the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, seeks to both educate its diners as well as serve them an array of dishes assembled from a loose confederacy of southern traditions, such as a seafood-rich Lowcountry Boil with cayenne broth.
1800 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Lunch Mondays-Fridays, dinner Mondays-Saturdays
1719 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Lunch Wednesdays-Saturdays, dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays
1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays
Zeitgeist Theater, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-