So this guy is looking at a menu and asks the waiter, “What is the soup du jour?” “How should I know?” the waiter responds. “They change it every day.”
We expect, and get, more from our restaurant professionals in a town where the dining industry is a passion as well as an economic development tool. On any day our range of soups could include not only the regular fare but also dark-rouxed gumbos or savory bisques. What does change every day is restaurants’ news. For that, the flow is steady and the challenges many, as we continue to look for the best in an ever-changing industry.
Each year our restaurant writing staff huddles in a closed conference room to discuss the best of dining for the past 12 months. As always, the choices are many. Those who we select are all certifiably excellent, but we know that there are other worthy choices out there, too. That is why year after year we keep looking – because there are always new pots to be stirred.
Chef of the Year | Alon Shaya
Food as happiness
When Alon Shaya was 7 years old, his grandparents came over from Israel to spend the summer with him in Philadelphia. “The whole time, my grandmother was in the kitchen, cooking up a storm,” he recalls. “I’d open the front door and this aroma would hit me in the face. And I remember not so much being excited about the food, as I was excited that she was there. Ever since, I’ve associated food with togetherness and just being happy.”
Shaya began working in restaurants when he was 14. As chance would have it, his first employers were Italian. He felt innately comfortable around that food, as it shared some similarities with the Israeli food he grew up with, ingredients like olives, goat cheese and roasted eggplant. And while he didn’t consciously set out to cook Italian, this confluence of family and serendipity laid the groundwork for what would later become Domenica.
Domenica has enjoyed praise from the get-go, but it has leveled up in the past year. Early press brought John Besh’s name to the fore, but now it is all about Shaya – and with good reason. A combination of practical business sense – Shaya has leveraged the popularity of his Neapolitan-style pizzas to include a delivery service and a broader array of offerings – is one reason. But a bigger reason is that his technical ability and his personal expressiveness have come into harmony with his dishes, which are turned out by a focused and highly attenuated staff. “We all really know each other well – a lot of them have been here since day one,” Shaya says of his crew. “Things just flow.”
Domenica’s genesis and more recent evolution is the product of two significant journeys. The first, the cornerstone, was Shaya’s extended stint in Italy in 2007 leading up to the opening, where he absorbed Italian cuisine from both technical and cultural perspectives. The second was a trip to Israel a year and a half ago as a guest of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans, where he cooked for a number of charity events as well as a Shabbat dinner, culminating with a meal for Israeli troops in the Golan Heights. “That trip just really moved me and just gave me a flashback to my childhood,” he says. Shaya came back inspired, and influences began to appear on the menu at Domenica shortly thereafter.
The cavernous room is carved out of the Old World opulence of the Roosevelt Hotel. It contrasts with the rustic feel of paper placemat menus and glasses made from recycled wine bottles. It is clearly a sophisticated place, but it makes an effort to keep itself grounded. Light dishes, such as Shaya’s tender Octopus Carpaccio, exist alongside showier set pieces, such as a whole roasted cauliflower dressed with sea-salt and whipped goat cheese. An earthy tagliatelle with rabbit and porcini mushrooms warms like a hug. But despite the assortment of choices, a diner here could be utterly satisfied without getting past the charcuterie plate.
Among the house-cured meats is a garnet-hued bresaola, and for spreads there’s a particularly silky duck liver pâté enhanced with Moscato. The prosciutto moves so fast that they import it from Italy, but all other items are made in-house. It isn’t just the meats, though – cheeses add another dimension, like a surprisingly mild blue from Sardegna and a sharp pecorino. The accompaniments include, lately, a pickled fennel along with warmed olives and Shaya’s addictive mostarda made with candied fruits underscored with sharp mustard. “That’s the way I like to eat,” Shaya says. “Mix and match like 30 different flavors all off the same platter.” A tip from Shaya – drape a ribbon of shaved lardo over his torta fritta. The heat from the savory beignet causes the lard to meld into the pastry, doubling-down the goodness.
Israeli influences can be seen in a new pizza featuring puréed eggplant first roasted under the cherry-red coals of his wood-burning oven. Topped with extra-virgin olive oil, goat cheese and tomatoes, it gets finished with tahini. “Now there is nothing Italian about tahini, but the flavors on the pizza really come together,” he says.
Most notably though, these influences aren’t fusion; they’re expression. Domenica is and always will be Italian. But Domenica now speaks more pointedly with Shaya’s voice. “Of course I have to balance it because we are an Italian restaurant, and people are expecting Italian,” he points out. “Southern cuisine plays just as much of a role in that as well. So you’ll see the menu now as compared when we opened three years ago as still holding onto this Italian backbone but with these hints of Israeli and Southern low-country coming through.”
It has been a big year both professionally and personally for Shaya, who got married in March. When not busy at Domenica, he enjoys entertaining at home. While on honeymoon in Barcelona, he bought a paella pan, which figures in his home cooking along with a Big Green Egg smoker. He likes shopping at Hong Kong Market on the West Bank, and is also a fan of Ideal Market on Broad and Banks streets in Mid-City, where he goes for tortillas and fresh salsas. “I hit the farmers markets’ for proteins. I get Bayou Farm’s chicken for the smoker and goat from Bill Ryals. I cook Italian all day long at Domenica, so I like to mix it up at home.” In this way, Shaya remains connected to the boy in the kitchen at summertime. “I roast bell peppers over the open flame on my gas stove just like my grandmother did,” he says. “And now whenever I roast a bell pepper like that, I think of her.”
– Jay Forman
Domenica, 123 Baronne St., 648-6020, DomenicaRestaurant.com
Restaurant of the Year | Restaurant R’evolution
A new order in dining
When Alfred Groos returned to New Orleans in April 2006 to take the position of general manager at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, he brought a vision for the property. Groos had been the director of food and beverage at the hotel before pursuing other opportunities, and he had a sense that the hotel could be more than it was. He wanted to make every aspect of the hotel match the building’s beautiful architectural elements, so that guests would have a truly authentic New Orleans experience.
His first step was to open Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, making the hotel a destination for New Orleans’ indigenous music. He then opened a PJ’s Coffee Café in the hotel’s lobby; another hometown staple. His most significant contribution, however, was to dramatically change the hotel’s dining scene. In 2010, chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto first announced their partnership and their plans to open Restaurant R’evolution in the Royal Sonesta. It seemed an odd pairing at the time, but R’evolution, which debuted in June of this year, is the most important restaurant to open in New Orleans in the last decade, if not longer.
Chef John Folse is a native of Louisiana. He was born in St. James Parish in 1946, and his flagship restaurant, Lafitte’s Landing, made him a name both locally and nationwide. Folse is an evangelist for Louisiana cuisine and has taken rustic cooking to new levels of sophistication.
Chef Rick Tramonto was born in New York, and began his career in the restaurant industry out of necessity. He left high school in 1977 to work at a Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburger chain, but thereafter his resumé includes stints at some of the best restaurants in the country, including Tavern on the Green; Gotham Bar & Grill; Aurora; Trio; and ultimately the restaurant for which he is best known, Tru. These two chefs don’t obviously go together, but then again they almost certainly called the person who came up with the peanut butter and jelly sandwich insane, so there you go. In retrospect, it’s a brilliant pairing for a restaurant that aims to both pay homage to and reinvent classic Creole and Cajun cooking.
That homage starts in the restaurant’s décor. Wood in the bar is stained with indigo, and an entire glass-encased wall displays some of chef Folse’s culinary antiques. There is an etched glass panel between the bar and a dining room with a mural depicting the seven nations that have influenced Louisiana cooking provides a classic recipe for Creole turtle soup. Pocket doors slide out to divide the various dining spaces, and the service is as attentive as at any of the city’s finest establishments. The attention to detail doesn’t stop there. The china is Limoges, the stemware is by Riedel and hand-blown glass ornaments grace every table. The restaurant was designed by the Johnson Studio, with whom chef Tramonto had worked in the past, and from the beginning there was a focus on New Orleans. Chef Folse took the architects around New Orleans and the surrounding region, pointing out elements he felt were important. Many, like the pocket doors, ended up in the restaurant’s final build-out.
But while the restaurant’s physical space, décor and service are noteworthy, it’s the food that prompted us to name Restaurant R’evolution the Restaurant of the Year for 2012. R’evolution has one of the larger and more diverse menus in the city. It is an amalgam of the food that chefs Folse and Tramonto are famous for cooking and, at its best, it achieves a harmony that surpasses their individual output.
Creole snapping turtle soup is served with deviled quail eggs and garnished with madeira. Corn and crab soup is transformed into a cappuccino flavored with black truffle, and frog legs stuffed with crabmeat are flavored with fennel and saffron. The restaurant has a serious charcuterie service as well, and the curing meats and sausages can be seen in the Market Room, where diners can sit at a table made from cypress pulled from a local swamp and eat while watching cooks man the grills and wood-burning oven that comprise only a small part of the massive kitchens.
Chef Tramonto’s influence is perhaps most noticeable in the caviar selections, which include whitefish and salmon roes, wasabi tobiko, traditional garnishes and a choice of black caviars from the United States, Germany and Israel, with a combination of them all topping out at $200. Did I mention that this is the kind of restaurant where the wine list is presented to diners on iPads?
Pastas are another area where chef Tramonto’s hand is most evident. Linguine with Manilla clams, garlic, thyme and chile oil; rigatoni with Roman-style ragu, tomatoes, olives and ricotta; and bucatini with shrimp fra diavolo with fennel, Calabrian chiles and fried mint are some of the options.
Chef Folse’s cooking is more evident in dishes such as the crawfish-stuffed flounder Napoleon served with an artichoke and oyster stew and fried crawfish boulettes, and the tryptich of quail, which features the game bird fried, boudin-stuffed and glazed with absinthe.
There is far too much to the menu for this piece to be comprehensive. Suffice to say that there’s a great deal of variety, and there’s likely something to meet just about anyone’s taste. What is amazing is that the restaurant seems able, at least at this junction, to pull off this varied menu.
There is a sense when you enter R’evolution that you’re in a serious restaurant, albeit one with the relaxed atmosphere you’d expect in New Orleans. The amount of money spent on this restaurant is, if not immediately evident when you walk in the door, obvious by the time you walk out. It wasn’t money spent frivolously; everything in this place is clearly there by design. It is because of that attention to detail that we’re proud to name Restaurant R’evolution our Restaurant of the Year for 2012.
– ROBERT PEYTON
Restaurant R’evolution, Royal Sonesta Hotel, 777 Bienville St., 553-2277, RevolutionNola.com
Honor Roll | JoAnn Clevenger
A swirl of people
In late August, JoAnn Clevenger was bunkered down at her “hurricane house” in Mississippi waiting out Hurricane Isaac, when a friend called to give her the news.
“JoAnn, it’s raining inside Upperline,” he said.
Clevenger’s stomach dropped. The Times-Picayune had just awarded her restaurant four beans. Now a hurricane had peeled her roof back like the lid on a tin of sardines. The office on the second floor flooded, causing the ceiling in the dining room below to collapse. For most people, it would have been devastating.
“At one moment I was high on the review, and then the next I was way down here,” Clevenger says. “But that’s life, right? Highs and lows. It really has been a roller coaster all these years.”
In January, Upperline will turn 30. Few restaurants are as closely associated with the personality of their owner. An energetic spitfire in a bun and glasses, Clevenger holds court in the rambling yellow townhouse that over the decades has collected as many accolades as it has paintings. Popular locally and nationally, it straddles a unique spot at a literary, culinary and artistic crossroad.
These characteristics also define Clevenger.
A voracious reader, Clevenger grew up the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers. Early on, she found her escape through cookbooks and magazines. The colorful photos of artfully arranged party foods enraptured her, taking her to places she couldn’t have otherwise imagined.
While in high school, her mother became seriously ill and was brought to Charity Hospital. Clevenger came along to care for her.
Her mother passed away a year and a half later, and Clevenger stayed in New Orleans. An intelligent and bookish young woman, she finished high school here and then entered Tulane University on scholarship, but found it not to her taste. She was soon drawn into the vibrant cultural scene of the French Quarter of the late 1950s and ’60s.
The French Quarter back then was a far different animal. “You could go to the poultry market on Decatur Street and buy a duck. They’d take the feathers off right there,” Clevenger recalls. Possessing an uncommon combination of bohemian energy and business savvy, she began her entrepreneurial career with a bar tucked into a carriageway on Bourbon Street. Called Andy’s, the cover charge was a quarter and it soon attracted the likes of Ritchie Havens. “It was a wonderful time,” she says. “We made absolutely no money.”
After Andy’s, Clevenger sniffed out a big break. “An ex-Filipino yo-yo champion owned the lease on this bar,” she says, managing this statement with a straight face. “I bought it and it became The Abbey.” People thought she was crazy, because Decatur Street at the time was a backwater. But she dressed it up with stained glass and, in a distributing coup, began selling Guinness on tap.
“Nobody in the southeast U.S. had it at the time,” she says, laughing. “Local distributors didn’t want to bring it in. So I talked to New York and told them I would pay the rent on the storage for it, and they said OK.” Along with the stout, she also brought in the Sunday New York Times, which was nearly impossible to find in New Orleans back then. The hooks were baited and people came.
The Abbey was a hit, especially with media types.
Clevenger’s stories could fill volumes, with other jobs that include running a fleet of flower carts before being sued by the state for operating without a florist’s license. So when she opened Upperline in 1982, it was primed to be an interesting place It has lived up to that promise.
Other than Isaac, the most recent storm to beset it was finding a replacement for her longtime chef Ken Smith, who left in 2010.
Clevenger cycled through a few chefs, none of whom clicked, until a friend helped her rethink the interview process. It was then that she found Dave Bridges, who came on in September. While the menu retains many of the defining legacy dishes, such as the Fried Green Tomato with Shrimp Remoulade, Bridges has added an infusion of new ideas and contemporary twists. This includes a recent play on muffulettas, featuring sautéed veal sweetbreads plated with burrata and finished with olive salad, as well as an inventive Ya Ka Mein featuring foie gras.
At Upperline, guests will find Clevenger’s passions served with gregarious hospitality. “You see how good New Orleans has been to me?” she says. “Every city has interesting people … In the 19th century, the people who didn’t fit in came here. The black sheep.
The creative ones. And this swirl of people still dances on today. Aren’t we all just so lucky to be a part of it?”
Upperline, 1413 Upperline St., 891-9822, Upperline.com
Restaurateurs of the Year | Ti Martin and Lally Brennan
Adventures of “The Cocktail Chicks”
I am not sure there’s another city in America where a story about the Restaurateurs of the Year starts out in a cocktail direction.
OK, you’re right; there isn’t another place like this. And two of the reasons that’s so are cousins, Ti Martin and Lally Brennan.
Ti and Lally, third-generation Brennans in our village’s hospitality industry, are to-the-core true New Orleanians. They possess a royal blood line mainlined to our food culture, and they’re keepers of the flame of the New Orleans lifestyle. Notably, they operate three prime dining destination restaurants, Commander’s Palace, Café Adelaide and SoBou, all featuring dishes that define our community heritage.
Oh, and it needs to be mentioned that they love to have a good time. These self-proclaimed “Cocktail Chicks” only want to be around people who are like-minded about enjoying life to the max, which takes in about 98 percent of our population and 100 percent of our visitors.
“We grew up around New Orleans food and entertaining,” Lally notes with a smile. “From the time we were very young, we have been around food and drinks, and our families knew the joy of sharing these pleasures with many friends.”
Ti adds, “Aunt Adelaide was a larger-than-life New Orleans personality. She was a major presence in any room she occupied.
Usually she wore a swizzle stick necklace that she used often for its intended purpose of stirring her drink. Mom [Ella Brennan] also played a big role in my life when it came to cuisine and managing a restaurant.”
There cannot be better teachers for learning about culinary and beverages along with restaurant operations than previous generations of Brennans.
Case in point is Commander’s Palace, one of the true grande dames of legendary American restaurants. Under Ti and Lally’s watch for the past 30 years, the restaurant not only has continued its excellence, it has also enhanced its vaunted position as a defining star-presence in America’s culinary firmament.
Lally is fond of telling the story that when they began the work for the Commander’s Palace Cookbook, a perennial bestseller, the first chapter was about cocktails. “Our publisher wanted to have a meeting to explain to us that a cookbook from a fine dining restaurant wasn’t about beverages. For us, we never even considered any other approach.” Check out pg. 1 of the book. The one marked, “Drinks.”
Then there’s Café Adelaide, fronted by the Swizzle Stick Bar. The challenge was to create a restaurant for New Orleanians in the transient atmosphere of Loews Hotel. Leading with a cocktail-centered effort, and then moving the guest into a Creole dining experience, Café Adelaide would be the kind of place in which the namesake would love to hang out.
“We refer to Café Adelaide as ‘Commander’s Lite,’” Martin playfully notes. “It’s been a wonderful success, and every night there’s the most amazing group of local people mingling with visitors from all over the world, coming together to enjoy mixologist Lu Brow’s special creations, some traditional and others are a bit more out there.
“Aunt Adelaide’s favorite expression was that she was ‘eating, drinking and carrying-on.’ That phrase was always in our mind when designing the menus for food, wine and cocktails at her namesake establishment.”
Establishing a beachhead in this city’s most-famous neighborhood, in 2012 the Cocktail Chicks opened SoBou on Chartres Street, bringing to the fore new skills at providing quite casual dining, and again using adult beverages as an important come-hither to eat, stick-around to drink, or vice versa, experience.
“If you look at the (French) Quarter, it’s divided into Upper and Lower, but the north-south quadrants don’t have a name. Yes, we understand that New Orleanians don’t care about or identify with compass points, but maybe this part of the Quarter will become known as South of Bourbon. SoBou seems right to us,” Martin said, with some hope that the designation would catch on.
What will catch on is the small-plate menu, playfully built on Creole and Cajun cuisines, alongside fun cocktails, such as the Rum Dum Dum and Dale’s Daiquiri, concocted by a new New Orleanian, Abigail Gullo, whom Ti and Lally imported from New York and is already accepted as a full-fledged local.
Ti and Lally will relate when asked that their “brain trust” of chefs, mixologists, wine experts and servers are the team that really makes it all work. Yes, that’s true to a certain extent.
It honestly starts at the top, with the Cocktail Chicks, then ends up on the table or bar with you.
– Tim McNally
Maitre D' of the Year | Maximilian Ortiz
Passion of a saint
Let us get this out of the way up front. Maximilian Ortiz of Root attends most Saints games in face paint and attire modeled after the Star Wars character Darth Maul. I assume that if you’re reading this magazine, you’re a fan of the Saints. I am a fan of the Saints as well, and have been for all of my 43 years. Ortiz isn’t like us; he is a fanatic.
I mention this at the start of this piece because it’s an important part of his public persona, but if all you know about Ortiz is that he goes to Saints games dressed as Darth Saint, you don’t really know him.
I met Ortiz when he was working at Restaurant August. My first impression was that he was a friendly, enthusiastic guy who knew a hell of a lot about wine. That was several years ago, but my impression hasn’t changed much. He is still friendly, he’s still enthusiastic and he still knows a hell of a lot about wine. The things that struck me about Ortiz when I first met him are the same things that led us to name him Maître d’ of the Year 2012.
Ortiz graduated from Jesuit High School in 1996, and he started working in restaurants while attending Loyola University. When his roommate and current business partner Nick Shay got a job at Bella Luna, Ortiz soon followed. There he worked under Horst Pfeiffer, whom Ortiz credits for his understanding and passion for food. He told me, “Horst always forced us to try everything, so it was a good learning experience. It was the foundation for my current food knowledge.” Though he had planned to go to law school after college, he discovered that working in a restaurant like Bella Luna was both lucrative and fulfilling. The way he looked at it, he was being paid to socialize and hang out with friends.
Hurricane Katrina put an end to Bella Luna, and after taking some time away from the industry, Ortiz applied for a job at August. He was hired, and ended up working for chef John Besh at August, Lüke and La Provence. Ortiz says that he learned a great deal about customer service and attention to detail from Besh. “With both of them it was about going the extra mile,” he told me.
It was while working for Besh that Ortiz met chef Phillip Lopez, with whom he’s currently working at Root and the upcoming Square Root. Both Ortiz and Lopez were helping with chef Besh’s efforts to feed first responders after Katrina when they met.
Ortiz remembers the time as being incredibly busy, as chef Besh was one of the first restaurateurs to re-open after the storm.
Later Ortiz and Lopez worked again at Rambla, the now-closed restaurant in the International House Hotel, and it was while there that they decided to open their own place. That restaurant, Root, opened in November 2011. It has been wildly successful, and Ortiz and Lopez have an even more ambitious restaurant, Square Root, slated to open early in 2013. Theirs has been a productive partnership, based on mutual respect and friendship.
I opened this article with a mention of Ortiz’s Saints fanaticism because it’s in contrast to his demeanor on the job. When he’s working, Ortiz is relaxed. He is ready to suggest a wine pairing or explain a menu item. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question immediately, he’s got the self-confidence to say so and then go get it.
I have watched him run pre-service meetings, and I’ve watched him deal with difficult customers. He is unflappable in an industry where chaos is the norm. Above all, Ortiz knows that his business is about giving diners a good experience, and he takes that responsibility seriously. I think I’m a pretty good judge of people, and I honestly believe him when he tells me that he enjoys what he does. There is no doubt it’s work; his girlfriend once told me that she takes occasional shifts at the restaurant because she feels like it’s the only time she gets to see him, but such are the sacrifices one makes for one’s passion. And it’s a passion for Maximilian Ortiz. That is why he’s our honoree for Maître d’ of the Year 2012.
Root, 200 Julia St., 252-9480, RootNola.com
Mixologist of the Year | Kirk Estopinal
Raising the bar
After Hurricane Katrina, Kirk Estopinal had to leave this city and ended up in Chicago. He was happy to find any work he could.
But returning home was never far from his thoughts. He was doing pretty well in the Windy City and soon tried something new:
working behind the bar instead of waiting tables and managing a restaurant.
He loved it – everything about it. The people he met were interesting; he was able to learn a new craft; he enjoyed creating new drinks; and he liked the additional income. He even thought Chicago was a cool town, which it is, except when it was a cold town.
At those moments, and there were quite a few, his thoughts returned to the semi-tropical clime of his hometown.
In 2008, he came home – this time to stay. He planned his return to coincide with the Tales of the Cocktail festival in July, hoping to find a couple of spirited people who could hire him. Turns out this was one part of his plan where he underestimated the new can-do spirit in New Orleans. He found a lot of folks ready to put him to work.
He met a few guys, notably Neal Bodenheimer and Matt Kohnke, who were putting together a bar the likes of which New Orleans had never seen. To be called Cure, it was the bar New Orleans deserved, they all thought, and it was going to be on Freret Street.
At the time, nothing of note was there; all the businesses had abandoned the thoroughfare. But Freret Street still carried a lot of traffic heading Uptown and downtown.
Cure opened, and so did eyes. It was a true oasis among a lot of boarded up buildings. But it was cool – very, very cool.
Estopinal says, “I really hate it when people say we’re a New York bar. Cure isn’t that at all. It is a New Orleans bar, done by New Orleanians, in a style that we have never enjoyed before. But it’s a New Orleans bar in its soul.”
It was also a grand success, garnering national attention both in travel publications and in trade magazines. Then another funny thing happened: Freret Street came alive. More businesses opened up, investments were made and customers came in droves.
The great success of Cure caused the team to seriously consider an offer from a hotel investment group to put a bar in the new Hotel Modern on Lee Circle. That bar, Bellocq, named after the New Orleans photographer who chronicled life in Storyville, is another great expression of what New Orleans is and was all about. Bellocq is nothing like Cure, but it is local.
Now comes the opportunity to pursue a bar in the Lower Decatur Street area of the French Quarter. There is a rework going on there and Pravda, the vodka bar, is now Perestroika, the rum bar.
“We thought a rum bar, along the lines of what Old Havana offered, would fit very well in that neighborhood,” Estopinal explains.
With the different styles of bars, in different sections of town, each with a unique focus on its menus, the guys can provide employment in the right slot to the right people.
“Maybe someone would be a better fit into Bellocq than Cure or Perestroika; well, we can do that. It opens up some great possibilities for serious professionals who want to make a mark in this business. We aren’t interested in people who are just passing through. We are all dedicated to an extraordinary level of quality and service,” he says emphatically.
Are they done yet? Not by a long shot. They have other concepts and aspirations that are going to be realized. These guys are serious about their craft and their business.
New Orleans after Katrina is a different town than before the storm. But at its core, it’s the same place culturally. That is the important part. New business leaders, talented at what they do and aspirational, are fueling some pretty amazing projects.
Kirk Estopinal is a New Orleans mixologist, creating something entirely new, but in the footsteps of this town’s greatest bartenders, like the legendary Henry C. Ramos.
By the way, when you see Estopinal, congratulate him on his brand-new baby boy. Estopinal’s wife, Melanie, is also from New Orleans, and the young man’s name is Rex.
Nice of the family to write the perfect ending to this tale, which is also a great beginning.
Start Up of the Year | French Truck Coffee
Little. Yellow. Different.
A while back, Geoffrey Meeker’s cousin, who worked at Chez Panisse, came to visit. She brought some freshly roasted coffee from California for him to try. Upon tasting it, Meeker had an epiphany. “I couldn’t believe the difference between that and every other cup of coffee I’d ever had,” he recalls. His cousin left, promising to send more. But when the next shipment arrived after its long journey by mail, it wasn’t the same.
“I suddenly realized that roasted coffee is really a lot like baked goods, and that freshness really matters,” Meeker says. “I saw there was a big disconnect between the process of roasting coffee and its consumer.” No stranger to the restaurant business – Meeker is the former Food and Beverage director of the W Hotel on Poydras Street, as well as a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute – he also saw an opportunity. The result is French Truck Coffee, a local micro-roaster with an online-ordering portal that’s elevating the quality of coffee in New Orleans. Perhaps you’ve seen him around town in his eye-catching canary-yellow 1975 Citroen, making deliveries to retail outlets such as St. James Cheese as well as to residential customers.
Meeker works with a green broker, buying his beans directly off the docks. He then roasts them to order in his 5-kilo roaster. “The small roaster gives me a lot of flexibility,” Meeker says. “If you’re cooking in small batches you have better control and the result is a more nuanced flavor and better product.”
He offers a variety of drip and espresso-roast coffees. Single-origin beans, currently in vogue, allow drinkers to isolate the nuances of a specific region. Ethiopian Harrar, for example, has a distinct note of blueberries, while Guatemalan puts forth a whiff of dark chocolate. Specialty coffees like these are best enjoyed in single-cup pour-over method. No special equipment is necessary; the most important thing is to grind the coffee and brew it immediately. Freshness really matters; the closer to its roasting, the better the brew.
By the time this issue hits the stands, Meeker will have relocated from the Carrollton area to a new space on Erato Street, giving him a centralized location as well as a place for customers to grab a cup of coffee and to observe the roasting process. Also, check out his website where you can buy beans that will be roasted to order and delivered to your doorstep by the signature little yellow truck.
French Truck Coffee, 1020 Erato St., 298-1115, FrenchTruckCoffee.com
John Keife and Jim Yonkus, co-proprietors
Wine Shop of the Year | Keife & Co.
A continental approach
How far is it from the bayou to the River Seine? Or from the Atchafalaya to the Danube? Not as far as you might think.
John Keife became interested in learning about and selling wine in retail operations in South Louisiana, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but when he first visited a wine store in Europe, he was really smitten.
“Those shops are comfortable, not an intimidating atmosphere,” he says. “They are open and airy, with plenty of product, much of it different from the way American stores are stocked. There is an emphasis on regionality. The shelf rackings with fine woods are against the walls, going from floor to ceiling. It’s quite welcoming.”
Keife & Co., New Orleans Magazine’s Wine Shop of the Year, is located on the corner of Howard Avenue and Carondelet Street, just off Lee Circle, in the bustling Warehouse District. When you enter, you’ll see what Keife saw when he was in Europe. The chandeliers don’t look out of place at all.
Keife’s partner, noted New Orleans cheese monger, Jim Yonkus, has set up a refrigerated case in the center of the store and stocked it with cheeses, patés, olives, meats and specialty items that are fresh and party-ready, perfect accompaniments to an intriguing selection of wines and spirits.
Keife has thought this thing through. “You really don’t need 50 California Chardonnays. You quickly come to a point where too many of them are tasting alike. But wines from Italy, with strong geographic differences, using different grapes, you want to have a good number of those on hand.”
Keife and Yonkus have tasted every item in the store, and they have notes to assist the purchaser. That also means they have tasted a lot of merchandise that isn’t in the store.
They are trying to bring to their clients wines and spirits that aren’t necessarily mainstream. Jim notes, “Sometimes people will try something at a restaurant, or in another market, and they make a note of it. We will do all we can to obtain that item for them.
There are a lot of wines and spirits that are available here in New Orleans, but they usually aren’t seen on a retailer’s shelves.
That’s the stuff we are looking for, in addition to the usual items.”
People are coming from every part of town, on both sides of the river, to see what all the fuss is about. Even visitors to town have been told about Keife & Co. and are placing orders through their hotel, or personally visiting the store.
“The most European city in America deserves a European-style bottle shop.”
Keife & Co., 801 Howard Ave., 523-7272, KeifeAndCo.com
Concept of the Year | Hot (Dog) time in the old town tonight
In 2011 New Orleans experienced an explosion in the number of hamburger-focused restaurants that continues on today. That trend was followed in 2012 by another flare-up, but this time it was hot dogs causing the excitement.
As surely as Twelfth Night precedes Fat Tuesday, the Year of the Hamburger has been followed by the Year of the Hot Dog, and both of the meat-in-a-bun phenomena continue forward even now. Yet, New Orleans has been on this turf before.
Anyone who has ever walked the streets of the Vieux Carré at 1 a.m. after a night of doin’ whatcha’ wanna’ has enjoyed the unequaled (at that moment) gourmet experience of a Lucky Dog laden with chili, onions and mustard, purchased from a cart shaped like a bun enveloping a wiener, too-conveniently located on every Bourbon cross-street corner and accompanied by whatever liquid remained in your now well-worn go-cup.
Then there are the legions of families over many years that, for a special night out, have headed into a rustic Bud’s Broiler and ordered the Broiler Puppy, Nos. 7 through 9, with or without onions, chili, smoke sauce and grated cheese, noted as cheddar.
Those are the progenitors to a new generation of specialty hot dog and sausage dining destinations. The new breed of dog is custom-made to a chef’s specifications and ultimately placed on an especially-crafted-for-this-purpose bun.
New Orleans has always loved her hot dogs. Maybe not like New York, Chicago or Milwaukee, but in their own way, hot dogs are embedded in the fabric of this town. It is just that we have never really seen restaurants passionately and singularly devoted to raising this friendly food to an art form.
Now we have. The first and maybe still top dog is Dat Dog located across from the original location. The menu here is simple, straightforward and delicious. Founders and operators, New Orleanians Skip Murray and Georges Constantine have kept Dat Dog fun – and always faithful to quality. Their motto: The world is a better place with Dat Dog. No one doubts it.
Along come Nasr Nance and Ahmad Shakir and their emporium, Dreamy Weenies, specializing in Kosher-style dogs with a heavy nod to New Orleans spice, but also something for the vegan and halal diner. It is an interesting balancing act for a hot dog outlet.
Then there’s Diva Dawg, Ericka Lassair’s Creole take on the trend with locally made dogs and brioche buns. Try the Red Bean Chili or the Sweet Fire Oyster Dog topped with andouille ketchup. Ya’ won’t find those on the streets of New York.
Even some of the new-wave burger joints, like Truburger, are into the dog act with tasty tubes and fresh locally made buns.
The dogs at the ’Dome are fun, but why wait for a Saints game to enjoy a great hot dog? Let us go get one now.
Dat Dog, 5030 Freret St., 899-6883, DatDogNola.com; Dreamie Weenies, 740 N. Rampart St., 872-0157, DreamyWeenies.com; Diva Dawg, 1906 Magazine St., 304-8777, DivaDawgNola.com; Truburger, 8115 Oak St., 218-5416, TruburgerNola.com
Bistro of the Year | La Crêpe Nanou
What started as a casual dessert crêpe place in 1983 has over the years evolved into one of the city’s most beloved bistros.
Romantic, bustling, quintessentially French, yet unpretentious all at the same time, La Crêpe Nanou gets our vote for Bistro of the Year. And if the long line scares you off, keep in mind they now offer lunch on Fridays, the perfect time to slip in for a bowl of Moules Marinières.
La Crêpe Nanou, 1410 Robert St., 899-2670, LaCrepeNanou.com
Doughnut Shop of the Year | Blue Dot Donuts
A good doughnut is the perfect comfort food, but good doughnuts are hard to find. Fortunately for residents of Mid-City, Brandon Singleton, Dennis Gibliant and Ronald Laporte opened Blue Dot Donuts on Canal Street in April 2011. Their specialties include a maple and bacon long-john; a peanut butter and jelly doughnut; and freshly cut and fried glazed doughnuts. Whatever you choose, you’ll leave happy.
Blue Dot Donuts, 4301 Canal St., 218-4866, BlueDotDonuts.com
Raw Bar of the Year | LÜKE
With John Besh, it’s never just what you expect, which is always wonderful. It is the unexpected that brings so much pleasure. The seafood bar at Lüke amazes. Even though it appears to be an afterthought, taking valuable space on the cocktail bar, you’ll be amazed at the fresh seafood selection of crab, mussels, shrimp, ceviche and oysters from every corner of America, including the coast of Louisiana. During Happy Hour, those are 50 cents each. Tell anybody on the West Coast you’re eating oysters in a John Besh restaurant for 50 cents each. They will tell you to your face you’re a liar. You are not.
Lüke, 333 St. Charles Ave., 378-2840, LukeNewOrleans.com
Middle Eastern Restaurant of the Year | Mona’s on Banks Street
Tucked away on an oak-shaded stretch of Banks Street in Mid-City is Mona’s. While there are others scattered around town, there’s something about this one’s relaxing surroundings that set it apart. Or perhaps it’s the attached Middle Eastern grocery store, stuffed with hard-to-find ingredients and exotic spices. Enjoy a sweet glass of Lebanese tea with a vegetarian platter while reclining in a booth, all at prices that will leave change to shop next door afterward.
Mona’s Café, 3901 Banks St., 482-7743
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year | Liuzza’s
Liuzza’s has been serving fried seafood, poor boys and Creole Italian specialties at the corner of Bienville and North Telemachus streets since 1947. The frozen schooners of beer and soft drinks served at Liuzza’s are almost as iconic as the white stucco structure that houses the restaurant. Though the restaurant has changed hands over the years, the food and friendly service have remained consistent.
Liuzza’s, 3636 Bienville St., 482-9120, Liuzzas.com
Continental Italian Restaurant of the Year | The Italian Barrel
In this city in the South, settled over the years mainly by Italians from the Southern end of their peninsula, the Northern Italian cuisine of The Italian Barrel, beautifully created and served by chef and owner Samantha Castagnetti, a lady of Verona, is pure magic.
Authentic dishes of lighter sauces, cheeses, meats, fish and vegetables are a treat for the palate and the nose. The place is intimate in both size and service. Reservations are always necessary. A very good sign.
The Italian Barrel, 430 Barracks St., 569-0198, ItalianBarrel.com
Breakfast Restaurant of the Year | Ruby Slipper Café
The Ruby Slipper Café is proof that a restaurant doesn’t have to be old to be a classic. Since Jennifer and Erich Weishaupt opened the small Mid-City café in 2008, it’s been wildly popular. The café is committed to using fresh, local products and serving excellent food. Though their lunch is also a hit, the Ruby Slipper stands out at breakfast.
Ruby Slipper Café, 139 S. Cortez St., 309-5531, TheRubySlipperCafe.net