After a series of delays, John Besh’s Domenica in The Roosevelt New Orleans opened its doors in September under the care of Executive Chef Alon Shaya. Shaya was deployed to Italy for eight months (poor guy) to soak up methods and technique, which he puts to good use here. Domenica occupies the mid-range slot in the new Waldorf Astoria’s dining options, with the Sazerac Restaurant seizing the high ground in terms of price point. This works to Domenica’s advantage – the structure and flexibility of the menu gives diners plenty of ways to put together a meal.
Kudos to the build-out – the cavernous room gets personalized by striking chandeliers and modern art murals and canvases. A glass-fronted charcuterie case and slick, quasi-retro slicing station adjacent to the raised bar overlooks the dining room. Placemats double as menus and drinking glasses are actually cropped bottoms of wine bottles. Some of these homey touches reminded me of Besh’s Lüke but with more of a modernist flair. And while Lüke skews German, Domenica is all about northern Italian. The heavily compartmentalized menu offers a range of items across a series of categories.
A short list of quality pizzas is turned out by the wood-burning oven. Their crust is thin, similar to a flatbread. My Pizza Enzo came with salty anchovies, tomatoes and garlic underneath a sheath of fresh-sliced mortadella. When I saw that, my first thought was, “That mortadella is going to slide off in one piece when I bite into it and screw up my mortadella distribution.” Instead, my teeth slid right through it; its texture was like a cross between butter and satin, and it stayed right on its slice. A pizza would make for a small meal for one. Shared, it makes for a decent size appetizer between two people.
The most interesting dishes are in the Antipasti and Primi sections of the menu. All are available in either small or large portions, giving diners an opportunity to mix and match with ease. My favorite of the antipasti choices was the Burrata Mozzarella, slices of thick wood-grilled bread topped with fresh heirloom tomatoes and Burrata cheese, which tastes like the secret love child of mozzarella and whipped cream. I hope this item stays put on the menu. Also excellent were the Fried Squash Blossoms, which were stuffed with mild goat cheese and dipped in a light tempura batter before their trip to the fryer. A dice of tomato in balsamic vinegar garnished the dish, adding a bit of acidity.
For the pastas, I had the Linguini, tossed with shrimp, chilies and mint along with bottarga (dried fish roe shaved into the pasta in the manner of fresh truffle.) The chilies and mint conspired to create an unusual combination that worked well – the heat from chili and the clean freshness of the mint got along together just fine, though I would have liked to see more of the bottarga shaved into the mix. The Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi, however, left me underwhelmed.
For dessert, the Gianhuja Budino, a chocolate and hazelnut pudding, had an amazingly silky texture. The Frittole di Fichi, fig and ricotta fritters, came to the table fresh from the fryer and their light texture belied their somewhat menacing (for a desert, anyway) appearance.
My meal at Domenica sent me back to the source – Besh’s flagship restaurant August. Contrasted against the hustle and buzz of Domenica, August was downright sedate; a Bentley compared to Domenica’s Lotus Esprit.
For appetizers, on the lighter side a Chop Salad included a mélange of fresh baby corn, figs, grapefruit, patty pan squash and blackberries, perked up with champagne-herb vinaigrette. Among the hot appetizers, the Gnocchi tossed with blue crab and black truffle in a cream sauce was light and sweet but complex at the same time, thanks to the truffle shavings. The gnocchi here was far superior to the gnocchi at Domenica, although the portion was smaller.
For entrées, the Grilled Lemon fish was served with a bit of pomp: A French press of herb-infused tomato water decanted into the dish’s bowl tableside. The result was a puff of lightly scented steam. The broth was rounded out with lemongrass, and the dish was buttressed with plump gulf shrimp. My favorite dish, however, was the Sugar and Spice Duckling, a portion of duck breast seared with a tasty salty-sweet rub and served with a quenelle of boutique grits, poached peach confit and a wedge of seared foie gras.
For dessert, the best part of the Napoleon of Nougatine was the salted toffee ice cream. A Hazelnut Croquant made with bittersweet chocolate and Creole cream cheese was augmented by a helping of diced stone fruit. Both desserts were well composed and thoughtful.
So how does Domenica Stack up against August? Truth is, it’s apples and oranges. Besh’s fiefdom is notable now not for any unifying theme but rather for its scope. And this range just increased with the deployment of The American Sector, his casual eatery housed in the National World War II Museum, which draws its inspiration from nostalgic favorites of wartime Americana. As his empire expands, is his name enough to hold everything together?
Time will tell. But as it stands, Domenica is a very welcome addition to an already cherished landmark that has returned, wonderfully renovated, to our city.