Chef’s Choice: Our Annual Best in Dining
When your name is “New Orleans,” albeit the city or the magazine, dining is going to be a major topic. We take seriously our annual challenge of trying to determine the best of the local dining scene. As always, the emphasis is on the new, but we have also looked at others who have made their mark.
Here are some questions and answers about the selection process.
How were the selections made?
Beginning with the advice of our food editor, Lorin Gaudin, we surveyed select local professional food writers, those who know best. The final decision, made by the editorial staff of New Orleans Magazine, was based on their recommendations.
What is the “Honor Roll” category?
Because the focus of the Best Chef, Best New Chef and Best New Restaurant categories are in the context of the past year, we also want to acknowledge restaurants and people who have been a vital part of the restaurant scene through the years.
What if we have our own suggestions?
Please send us a letter to the editor and tell us about it.
CHEF of the YEAR: Tenney Flynn
Possessing a quiet intensity, Chef of the Year Tenney Flynn is simply “fin-tastick.” Tall and lanky, Flynn has hands that are mostly scar- and burn-free, nails neatly trimmed and clean. They are the hands of an artist – the essence of a chef. He speaks wistfully of his youth in Georgia – time spent in Southern kitchens run by cooks who worked without recipes and operated their kitchens with a dynamic that he has never forgotten and never will. While that Southern-cooking tradition didn’t translate well during his training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Flynn added new skills to his repertoire and became an organization freak. Conceding he is a “nuts and bolts” cook at heart, he says, “I’m no innovator with a notebook at my bedside for jotting notes in the middle of the night.”
Several big-time restaurant stints later, including work as culinary operations manager of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Flynn co-conceived the idea for the two restaurants he co-owns, GW Fins and Zydecue. Both places tackle Louisiana’s greatest culinary traditions – seafood and smoked meats. It’s a daunting challenge.
As a chef, Flynn is head-down, hands-on in his restaurant kitchens, moving swiftly, missing no details and expecting near perfection from his staff. Chef is tough on all accounts, but that is his recipe for success, although success has been hard won.
Three and a half years ago, Flynn and his business partner, Gary Wollerman, embarked on their plan to fill a niche they saw in the New Orleans dining market – the absence of a restaurant that was fish-centric. The concept, called GW Fins, was slated to be a surefire winner that would garner immediate local and national recognition and big cash flow, right? Not exactly: Some diners hated the name or were confused by it or didn’t readily embrace the place.
As for national recognition, there was a nibble here and there, but mostly GW Fins swam quietly, if not stealthily. That is until recently, when diners went mad for seafood and beef went in for some anger-management. Only then did diners finally notice GW Fins. The menu has never had stuffed flounder or trout amandine; instead it includes dishes such as horseradish-crusted drum, Louisiana stone crab claws and deep-fried lobster tails. Flynn’s meticulous selection of crustaceans and fins from the Gulf of Mexico was joined by seafaring beauties from other waters, prepared in bold, new ways. Amazingly, this self-proclaimed non-innovator was hedging on dishes such as Chilean sea bass in a Thai broth; New Bedford sea scallops with mushroom risotto; and cashew and peppercorn-crusted swordfish with mashed potatoes and veal jus. Would it be catchy enough for locals and national food writers to get hooked?
Slowly, the answer became an emphatic “yes!” and now local devotees make weekly pilgrimages to Iberville Street for fixes of fish prepared Flynn’s way. For his part, Flynn has learned menu flexibility, having added chicken, pork and beef dishes for non-seafood lovers. All this fine fishy business and seafood knowledge resulted in weekly TV cooking segments on WDSU-TV/Ch. 6’s fishing show “The Big Fish,” and there have been national nods from Esquire, The New York Times, Travel and Leisure, and Southern Living. These days it is not unusual to see a room full of locals, tourists and food media circling Fins’ swanky dining room and bar, admiring the vast menu, the latest fresh catches and the encyclopedic wine list.
And as if Flynn isn’t busy enough, he added restaurant turf with Zydecue – a barbecue joint in the spirit of the Louisiana smoked-meat tradition. Open next door to GW Fins for about 10 months, it too is enjoying success, especially for the locally popular “rib night.”
Flynn has dived head first into two deeply ingrained Louisiana food traditions – seafood and smoked meats – successfully challenging the standard for those foods and then changing the way we eat them. In doing that, he has made a major contribution to the dining scene while securing a measure of notice for his kitchen skills and the restaurants. He is a master of his craft, and he has netted the toughest crowd, New Orleans diners. He got us hook, line and sinker. –Lorin Gaudin
BEST NEW CHEF: Bob Iacovone
You can look at a menu and take it for what it is: food choices. Or you can read it as a reflection of personality, a document that can uncover a thing or two about the chef behind it. Take Restaurant Cuvée’s menu. When you know executive chef Bob Iacovone, each item makes perfect biographical sense.
The classical French techniques of beurre blanc, confit and vinaigrettes, for example, are evidence of Iacovone’s training at the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating in 1991, Iacovone went back home to South Florida. He worked at the PGA National Resort & Spa but then grew restless. So he hopped on his motorcycle, riding from Florida to New York and then through the heartland to California. The four-month, soul-searching plan had two purposes. First, Iacovone wanted to taste America’s food, and this culinary exploration of the United States appears on Restaurant Cuvée’s menu in the form of Kurobuta pork, Snake River’s Kobe flatiron steak and Hudson Valley foie gras.
Second, and this brings us to the Creole and regional influences on the menu – the remoulade, cayenne butter and Steen’s cane syrup-cured duck – “I was trying to find a niche, a place to call home,” he says. When Iacovone took that trip, he bypassed New Orleans, even though it was a city he wanted to see. Then, a twist of fate. Iacovone remembered what his former Culinary Institute of America roommate, Bingo Starr, said when they parted ways: “If ever in New Orleans … ” So Iacovone flew to New Orleans and looked up Starr.
New Orleans struck a chord in ambiance and in flavors. In 1995, Iacovone moved here, working under Jeff Tunks at the Windsor Court Hotel’s Grill Room. He also worked with Scott Boswell, now owner of Stella! in New Orleans, for two summers in New York and in Montana.
During this period, Iacovone took two unconventional journeys (hence, you’ll sometimes see the unconventional on a Cuvée plate, such as foie gras crème brûlée). First, he went to Europe. Although he went to England and Italy (try chef’s homemade Boursin-chicken ravioli), he also strayed off the beaten path by heading into cities like Budapest, Prague and Istanbul, where he crossed the Europe-Asia bridge.
In his career, he crossed that bridge, too, straying from classical French to Indian cuisine. He worked under Anjay Keswani, who now owns Nirvana. Iacovone was fascinated with the culture, the flavors and the methods of Indian cooking; through this training, he says, he learned new ways of preparing sauces and soups.
Then, in one of life’s circular moments, Iacovone again shared space with Starr. Starr, executive chef of the newly opened Restaurant Cuvée, hired Iacovone as sous-chef in 2000. When Starr left in 2003, Iacovone took the helm.
Iacovone describes his style as “based on classical French but with contemporary, Creole influences,” but there is something else, a certain rush and daringness of textures and flavors that defy a category. That also is part of Iacovone’s biography and personality. A former acrophobe, Iacovone decided to skydive, tandem the first time down, because “there’s no turning back,” he says.
Iacovone’s first time cooking “on the line” at age 15 was, in a sense, tandem, too. He was thrown on unexpectedly during a rush. After his adrenaline waned, he realized there was no turning back: He called his mother that night and said, “I know what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
And he’s done it, taking creative control of Restaurant Cuvée’s kitchen, being invited to cook at the James Beard House last summer, and now being recognized as one of the best. –Christine Richard
BEST NEW RESTAURANT: Ralph’s on the Park
Avid diners eagerly anticipated the opening of a new restaurant partnership between Ralph Brennan and chef Gerard Maras two years before they (or Brennan or Maras) knew where the restaurant would be or what it would be called.
With good reason. The last time Ralph Brennan and Gerard Maras were together, they created the golden age of Mr. B’s. On his own, Maras opened Gerard’s Downtown and inspired raves. After that closed (logistical problems), Brennan asked Maras to come into his three-restaurant operation until they could figure out what to do next.
What came up was a surprise. Brennan bought the Tavern on the Park – a restaurant with a staccato history going back to the 1860s and a broadside view of City Park. It looked perfect. In 2002, they started working on the place. The more work they did, though, the more work they found to be done. Termites. Water damage. Demolition went on and on.
Meanwhile, chef Gerard’s fans fanned. And another solid guy joined the effort. Richard Shakespeare, who worked in the dining rooms and wine cellar at Commander’s Palace for 25 years, signed on as general manager of the new place. And everybody beat their brains out trying to think of a name.
In late 2003 “Ralph’s on the Park” (is that the best they could come up with?) opened quietly. For a few days. as soon as the word was out, the patient enthusiasts jammed in, testing not just the food but the structural integrity of the balconies that wrap around the second floor (and forcing some reinforcement).
Maras picked up where he’d left off. His menu is strongly inspired by classical French cooking but not so much that one recognizes anything as a standard. The flavors are also informed by local products.
But the chef’s claim to fame is his knowledge of local farms. Maras was a pioneer 20 years ago in encouraging farmers to plant more tasty vegetables and to harvest them for flavor rather than for shelf life. The excellent edibles we find now in our markets are to some extent the result of Gerard’s efforts. He uses them widely at Ralph’s, where soups, salads and side dishes are a cut or two above the local norm.
Maras’ style is understated. Reading the menu will likely not raise your pulse. The excellence of the food is subtle; get ready for seasoning levels well below what we’re accustomed to. Instead, tune in to the natural flavors.
Best meal: Start with the boudin noir, a not-so-Cajun blood sausage. Then the soup of the day, whatever it is. Follow that with the seared scallops with lentils and jasmine rice. And whatever tart they’re baking for dessert. Also good: the salmon poached in olive oil, the duck bigarade, and the peppered filet with a port and raisin demiglace.
A big-time innovation here is the full vegetarian menu, the first locally. You don’t even have to ask for it – it comes with the regular menu and has about a dozen choices.
By the way, the building came out great. Although the interior is completely new, it looks as if it could have been there for 140 years. And that mural in the back depicts a true historical scenario that you should ask about. –Tom Fitzmorris
BEST SPECIALTY CUISINE: Pho Tau Bay
Pho, the soup staple of Vietnamese cuisine, seems simple – a broth-based soup with meats, noodles, vegetables and herbs. In truth, it is anything but simple; pho is a labor of love, complex, layered, textural – just like the family that brought pho to the culinary forefront in New Orleans.
Before the fall of Saigon, the original Pho Tau Bay was considered the “McDonald’s of Vietnam.” There were 13 Pho Tau Bay restaurants, 10 owned by the family patriarch who started it all, Y Van Vu, and three owned and operated by 19-year-old Thu, one of Vu’s daughters. The idea for these restaurants goes even further back to the time of the French occupation and the tradition of soup carts that lined the streets. Long story short, Vu secured the name Pho Tau Bay (which roughly means “soup express”) from a man who once owned several carts. The Vus’ restaurant empire was going strong until political upheaval forced the family to escape and leave the restaurants behind. Twenty-two family members boarded a plane and came to the United States, sponsored by American GI Karl Takacs, who was once stationed in Vietnam right next to the Vus and who had fallen for one of the Vu daughters, Tuyet. The family landed in New York and then ended up in Mississippi, where they farmed soybeans, worked as security guards, or, in Thu’s case, worked at a 7-11. “The Powerhouse,” as Thu’s family calls her, bought gold bars with every paycheck and stashed them away, waiting for the day when the restaurant empire could be rebuilt. One day, Thu and her husband, Chau, heard there was a growing Asian community in Louisiana and moved the family to New Orleans’ West Bank. In 1981, inside a rickety building on stilts, the first Pho Tau Bay operated at the Algiers Flea Market. A short time later, a former bar space on the West Bank Expressway became available, and the first Pho Tau Bay restaurant formally opened in 1982.
Today there are four successful restaurants around the metro area. “The Powerhouse” still mostly runs the show; the recipes are hers or her parents’, and they are not written down. Everyone in the family works six or seven days a week; even a cousin visiting from Paris threw on an apron and waited tables. Eighty-year-old Grandfather Vu still makes his famous yogurt under cover of night when no one can “steal” his recipe. Speaking of recipes, don’t even ask – not for Grandmother Vu’s honey-mustard sauce or Thu’s delectable mayonnaise – it’s not going to happen. “If we give out the recipes, then why would anyone come here to eat. They would just make it at home!” says Thu.
Thu and Chau’s children, Vy, Ninh, Alys, Bernard and Khoa, who own and run the Metairie and Carrollton locations, had to memorize every recipe, and even Ninh, who cooks at the Metairie Pho Tau Bay, will catch something new each time he watches Thu make a dish. On the West Bank, Karl and Tuyet’s children, Carolyn and Karl Jr., have also been involved in the family business and may soon add to the restaurant empire. Running the restaurants is hard work, but the kids love the business, love their family, and are just as passionate as the generations before them and just as successful.
Like that seemingly simple bowl of pho that started it all, there is even more to this fabulous family. You can feel it in the warmth they exude and taste it in the food they lovingly make. –Lorin Gaudin
HONOR ROLL: JoAnn Clevenger
JoAnn Clevenger, the owner of the Upperline restaurant, is one of very few New Orleans restaurateurs whose autobiography would make fascinating reading.
Starting with her historic fight to allow flower carts in the French Quarter in the 1960s, she has been part of more avant-garde projects than seems possible for one person. Blending a passion for the arts with a gift for being a host, she creates hot spots.
“The first one was the Abbey,” she says of the bar she opened on Decatur Street in the 1970s. “I thought of that as my salon. All my friends in the arts community came there to hang out. After I sold the Abbey, I missed the energy.”
So in 1983, she opened the Upperline with her son Jason as chef. He’d been at Cafe Sbisa, one of the first of a new kind of restaurant in New Orleans: the gourmet bistro. In the early 1980s, these were opening wholesale, particularly Uptown. And they were changing the dining-out landscape in a big way. “It was an exciting time to open a new restaurant,” Clevenger says.
Although the gourmet bistro is now the dominant form of white-tablecloth restaurant, only the Upperline, Clancy’s and Gautreau’s remain of the first crop of Uptown bistros. And the latter two have changed hands. The Upperline just kept on going, always staying fresh because of the fertility of Jo Ann Clevenger’s imagination.
Any theme that fascinated her became an event at the restaurant. Only the Upperline would have regular Jane Austen-theme dinners. Or a dinner of Thomas Jefferson’s recipes. Or the menu served in the movie “Babette’s Feast.”
Clevenger has had a gift for partnering with kindred spirits, most famously with the late chef Tom Cowman, a man whose artistry and literacy extended far beyond the kitchen. Cowman and Clevenger hatched one great idea after another – the annual summertime garlic menu and their widely copied shrimp remoulade with fried green tomatoes, to name two of the most popular.
The physical restaurant is one of Clevenger’s works-in-progress. A few years ago, she began filling its walls with folk and primitive art. She took a shine to the whimsical paintings of Martin Laborde, whose work covers the façade of the restaurant and the menu. It’s worth going to the place just to look at the art.
All of this coexists in Clevenger’s mind with the need to run a solid business. She is sometimes criticized for having a menu that has a few frankly touristy turns. “But we can’t count on the locals alone,” she says. As a result, the Upperline is one of the few bistros that’s widely recommended in national media. Many visitors take the long streetcar ride from the French Quarter to have dinner there.
The Upperline’s menu has been edging in a traditional turn in recent years. Chef Ken Smith comes from the same part of central Louisiana where Clevenger grew up. He cooks a mix of Creole and rural Southern dishes, but in a way urbane enough to appeal to a sophisticated palate. He’s only the fourth chef in The Upperline’s 21 years – a measure of the loyalty Clevenger inspires in her staff.
Perhaps most importantly, JoAnn Clevenger is at the front door of her restaurant when it’s open – always. But maybe she should take a few days off. She needs to write that autobiography. –Tom Fitzmorris