Lately we’ve seen some popular chefs become attached to projects well outside the purview of traditional restaurants. In seeking to distinguish themselves, establishments as diverse as movie theaters, museums and racetracks have beefed up their concessions to set themselves apart from the pack. The result: good news for food lovers.
When owner George Solomon was renovating the Theatres at Canal Place, he wanted to offer signature amenities to his upscale reboot. His new theater complex would feature plush seats, a full bar and a veneer of luxury to set itself apart from big-box movie malls. As befitting such a remake, quality dining in lieu of a concession stand was part of the plan. For this part, Solomon reached out to local chef Adolfo Garcia and asked if he was interested.
Garcia bit. The result reflects the spirit of the moment. It was named “Gusto.”
“George is a creative guy who has been in the business for a long time and really knows what he’s doing when it comes to movies,” says Garcia.
Also, the unusual nature of the project appealed to him. “I liked the concept – it was innovative.”
Garcia came on board at the end of the buildout and stepped into a kitchen whose cooking elements were essentially limited to a convection oven and a panini press. He got to work, tapping his talent pool from La Boca and Rio Mar. When putting together the menu, they settled on the concept of small plates with a focus on Spanish, Italian and other Mediterranean fare. “The idea was that it would be easy to eat in dark theaters and didn’t involve a lot of silverware,” Garcia says. Other logistical questions that begged answers included how to serve people discreetly without distracting other patrons.
“It was crazy at first,” Garcia recalls. “The day we opened the theater was the day we opened that kitchen. No prep time, no training time and, of course, that day we opened Sex and the City II premiered. There were, like, hundreds and hundreds of people just waiting to get it.”
Since opening, Gusto has settled into a smooth operation and turns out an impressive number of covers from its small, galley-style kitchen. The full bar has signature cocktails and an evolving wine list. What is more, the theater itself is expanding: four more screens are being added, one of which will be “super-premium.” “That one will have about 30 seats with reclining chairs and its own private bar,” Garcia says. “You can rent it out and pick what movie you want – perfect for parties.”
When you settle into your leather seat, recommended choices include the flatbread pizzas. I like the Iberian, featuring Serrano ham, chorizo and Manchego cheese. The Margherita (mozzarella, basil and tomatoes) offers a lighter touch. For sandwiches, the Spanish muffuletta offers twists on a local favorite such as piquillo peppers and chorizo. The cured meats for their salumi plate come from Garcia’s homemade stash at Ancora, and upscale popcorn (Parmigiano, black pepper, smoked paprika and garlic) is available as well.
Out in Avondale, the NOLA Motorsports Park has roared to life. Rising out of the marsh is Laney Chouest’s realization of a dream to bring a world-class racetrack to New Orleans. In putting it together, Chouest reached out to his friend chef Scott Boswell of Stella! and Stanley for help in bringing the dining components of his auto oasis online.
Chouest and Boswell put their heads together in coming up with a menu for the Kart Café and Stanley at the Track, the two facilities serving the racetrack. The Kart Café opened first. From its bird’s-eye perch it overlooks the twists and turns of the 23-acre go-kart track. In essence, it’s a concession stand, albeit one that has been punched up. “This is a world-class facility, so it needs good food,” says Boswell. “I think that when people come out here they get caught off-guard. They don’t expect to find good food but when they do, they say ‘wow.’”
The menu is essentially a stripped-down version of Stanley, Boswell’s popular café on Jackson Square – think burgers, breakfast and dogs, but stepped-up in quality. Modifications include more modest portion sizes (“Out here we don’t want to put you on the couch – we just want to put something in your stomach and get you back on the track,” Boswell points out) and a short list of novelty items like “Fast Balls” – caffeinated snow balls – as well as other sweets.
There is nothing fancy; guests expecting the high-flying wizardry of Stella! won’t find it here, but the basics are well-composed, put together with Boswell’s attention to detail. The roast beef sandwich gets a little extra sesame flavor through a neat twist – the toasted poor boy bread is lightly brushed with sesame oil in lieu of butter, trading fat for flavor. Also, the rough-cut lettuce is tossed in a spicy mayo to create a slaw that offers a unique texture and contrast. “We spent a lot of time taste-testing this sandwich,” Boswell says. “Finally after one version Laney took a bite and said, ‘this is the one.’” The Racetrack Reuben features homemade corned beef, and the cold cuts for the other sandwiches are made in-house by Boswell.
Boswell admits that putting the dining options together for NOLA Motorsports was a huge challenge. But it was also an opportunity to put something together from the ground up with systems in place that would allow it to be replicable and franchised elsewhere. “Punching through the hard parts is what’s really satisfying,” he says.
Stanley at the Track is the signature dining venue, housed in an Activities Center at the foot of the main track. Split over two levels in a clubhouse style, upholstered in red and black leather, it was poised to open at press time. It is geared to handle big groups of race fans, along with parties and special events.
Exhibiting your appetite
Two of our museums house dining options branded with high-profile chefs. The New Orleans Museum of Art features Café NOMA by the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, and The National World War II Museum houses The American Sector by John Besh. Both elevate typical museum dining, mirroring a trend in other cities like New York, where museums seek amenities that distinguish themselves much as their collections. Also, at the neighborhood level, The Green Dot Café in Broadmoor’s new Rosa Keller Library offers coffee, sandwiches and pastries in a sunny atrium setting.
Two To Go
The Theaters at Canal Place
333 Canal St.
Stanley at the Track & Kart Café
NOLA Motorsports Park
11075 Nicolle Blvd.