Mike’s Back on the Avenue

Mike’s East-West, the new venture by Mike Fennelly and Vicky Bayley, opened this past Monday at 628 St. Charles Ave., the former home of Mike’s on the Avenue. The space, in the Lafayette Hotel, has housed a few other restaurants in the interim, including a bizarre Russian-inspired vodka bar whose décor reminded me of a 1980s heavy metal hair band video. If you’re not familiar with that particular incarnation of the space, I’m not surprised.

It’s never really been the same since Fennelly and Bayley closed up shop in July 1999. In its prime, Mike’s on the Avenue was one of the most original restaurants in New Orleans, and although “Asian-fusion” is something of a punch line these days, when it’s done right, it can be outstanding.

I had lunch at Mike’s on Tuesday, and though I can’t really judge it completely until I’ve had a few more meals, I can tell you it’s worth checking out. That’s particularly true if you were fond of the prior iteration. They’re serving an abbreviated menu at the moment that nevertheless gives you a pretty wide variety of choices. There are four items from the Mike’s on the Avenue menu, including crawfish spring rolls with chile-lime sauce ($8) and blackened tuna napoleon with a mild wasabi mayonnaise and sesame guacamole ($10). The tuna is served on chips made from fried wonton wrappers, and it really resembles a nacho more than a napoleon, but it was good, so I’m not going to quibble.

There are five “small plates” available now, though none I tasted was particularly small. The banana-leaf-braised pork sliders with an “Okinawa barbecue sauce” came four to a serving and would have been just about sufficient for lunch. The sauce was sweet and spicy, the pork was tender, and there was a little red cabbage-and-carrot slaw for texture. The dish goes for $12, and like most of the small plates, it’s designed for sharing. That seems an odd choice for a small plates menu, but what the hell do I know? (Don’t answer that.)

I also got to taste the miso tuna salad and cheddar quesadilla, which was served with a tomato-ginger salsa and more of the sesame guacamole ($10). Again, it was on the small plates portion of the menu, but it was anything but. Fennelly did a good job with the ratio of cheese to minced filling because, while I like a tuna melt, too much cheese would have overwhelmed this dish. It was salty enough with the miso.

I did not venture into the large plates, of which there are another half dozen, but instead ordered the crispy battera roll, an asparagus, crab and tuna creation that had enough rice to make it the size of a small burrito. It was covered in panko and then fried before being sliced. It was also good and reminded me of a cross between the Japanese rice balls called onigiri and a maki roll with a crispy exterior.

In the front dining room near the entrance, there’s a marble sushi bar that is helmed by Fennelly himself at night. I’m not sure how extensive the sushi menu will be, but given the size of the rest of the (temporary) menu, I’m not concerned. I don’t expect to visit this restaurant just for sushi, after all. 

To accompany the sushi and accent the other Asian elements of the menu, there are a number of sakes available, and you can sample a flight of three for $14, which is a nice way to taste the range of what they have. When I spoke to Bayley, she told me that the bar across the lobby from Mike’s, Twist, would be open in time for the Super Bowl and Carnival. Daniel Victory, New Orleans Magazine’s most recent bartender of the year for his work at the Ritz Carlton’s Lobby Bar, will be the face of the operation. Twist will be open at 4:30 p.m., seven nights a week. 

As of now, there’s only a skeleton Web site up, but you can download the menu there or find a link to the location, which are both good things. Not so good is the music that starts playing when you load the site and that I could not find a way to turn off. It’s not offensive, but –– no, wait, yes, it goddamn well is. Nobody should have auto-loading music that you can’t turn off on a Web site in 2010.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that Fennelly is an artist and obviously skilled at design, and Bayley is an experienced restaurateur. The restaurant itself is as beautiful as ever, taking full advantage of the huge windows that open onto St. Charles Avenue and Lafayette Square. The décor is otherwise restrained, with some New Age type words stenciled onto some of the windows and diaphanous linens providing a hint of separation between some of the tables. Fennelly’s artwork, which I very much like, has returned to one wall of the rear dining room, and I hope we’ll see more of it. He is still extremely interested in art and in fact will be showing works he created during his time in Hawaii and on Cape Cod at Steve Martin Fine Art at 604 Julia St. on April 1.

I am hopeful that the Web site will be the only real flaw I discover in the restaurant because it’s otherwise making me nostalgic for a lunch I had in 1995, when, as a neophyte lawyer, I had lunch at Mike’s on the Avenue with a senior partner and a secretary. It was an excellent meal, as evidenced by my memory of it lo these many years later. It was only the first of many I had there. For example, I can also remember a meal during Carnival season at Mike’s with a bunch of friends. It’s a fantastic location for watching the parades, and we had an excellent meal in the bargain. 

Again, I can’t completely vouch for Mike’s East-West based on a single meal, but my experience was positive, and I’ll be going back in the near future. I suppose there’s a “rule” about waiting some period of time before you check out a new restaurant. Personally, I think that’s nonsense, but I leave it to you to decide.

I have a professional interest in checking out new restaurants, but I’d have been at Mike’s East-West regardless because of my prior experience with his cooking. Your mileage may vary, and please feel free to tell me what you think in the comments below. I only ask that you spare my feelings. Because I’m a delicate flower, you see.

Call Mike’s East-West at 523-7600 if you would like more information or to make reservations.

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