It has been quite a while since I have felt comfortable writing about restaurants without using modifiers like “doom” and “woe.” But despite the ongoing pandemic and the news yesterday that the City is returning to the 25 percent occupancy rule and forbidding patrons from congregating in lounge areas, restaurants are still opening in New Orleans, and some are closing.
The most recent closing first: after almost 30 years in business, the last Semolina restaurant closed this past Friday. I remember dining at the location at the foot of Metairie Road when it first opened and being excited by the idea of a restaurant focused on fresh pasta. Like all of the restaurants operated by the Taste Buds, Semolina was consistently good and, for its time, groundbreaking in introducing flavors and ingredients with which most local diners were unfamiliar.
In New Orleans, we expect things to last forever, because so many things seemingly do. There are restaurants here that have served generations of diners, but the truth is that the majority of restaurants don’t last 10 years, let alone 29. I suspect Semolina would have stayed in business for a decade or two more if it wasn’t for the pandemic, because it remained relevant even though the things that made it groundbreaking are no longer as unusual.
One thing I valued about Semolina was that I could go there with people who had less adventurous palates and be comfortable that everyone could find something they actually wanted to order. That’s a very difficult thing to pull off, but Semolina did it, and they did it at a reasonable cost.
Sometimes I think that the real measure of a restaurant is not how many people they serve or how transcendent the food is, but rather how many people truly enjoy the experience. Because if you measure success by people served, fast food joints come out on top. If you measure a restaurant by the number of Michelin stars its been awarded, then you’re excluding the vast majority of diners from the equation.
I have had better meals than any I ate at Semolina, but I’d be hard pressed to name another restaurant that so consistently pleased me and everyone I dined with.
The Taste Buds, Gary Darling, Hans Limburg and Greg Reggio are still operating the multiple locations of Zea Rotisserie & Bar, and Chef Reggio has said that Semolina may return one day, so this is not a dirge as much as a remembrance.
On the other end of the equation, two very different restaurants have opened recently.
Val’s is a casual taco joint on Freret Street. It’s in a space that was formerly a service station and they’ve taken no pains to hide that heritage. In fact, the huge overhanging roof that formerly protected the gas pumps from the rain is now one of the most inviting patio spaces in town.
The restaurant is run by the same folks who operate Cure, the high-end bar just up Freret Street, as well as the rum-centric gastropub Cane & Table in the French Quarter. I like those places, so I was inclined to like Val’s, too, but what sold me was the fact that there are crispy beef belly tacos on the menu. I suspect they know that’s a selling point because it’s top of the list on their taco menu, which also includes pork shoulder, green mole chicken, fried fish and sweet potato with salsa macha, a spicy condiment originating in Veracruz.
It all looks good, is what I’m saying, and I hope to visit as soon as I have the time, resources and am confident that by visiting I will not be damning my aged relatives to a slow death. I’m flexible on the last bit (I joke, Mom, I joke!)
Another intriguing restaurant that’s opened recently is Yo Nashi, on Carondelet Street in the CBD. It is the sort of restaurant that appeals to me in a very primal way. It is inspired by Japanese cuisine, and there is a set menu – omakase – that from what I’ve seen looks pretty sweet.
I am far from an expert on Japanese cuisine. I do not speak the language and I have never been to Japan. But some of my favorite food memories occurred at Kanno, Hide Suzuki’s tiny Metairie restaurant. I’ll never forget the time he opened a live scallop for me, or the first time I tasted true Kobe beef. And it’s no coincidence that the restaurants considered the finest in the world serve a set menu of progressive dishes that mimic the traditional Japanese omakase.
There are downsides to this approach, of course. The first is that you will not know in advance whether you are going to like the food being served. It is a concept best suited to people with open palates. The second is that it tends to be expensive. I have no idea whether the food cost for an omakase restaurant is more than a traditional fine-dining establishment, but when you’re eating eight to 10 courses and each course consists of multiple elements I tend to think that the skill of the chef is what drives the price. So the menu at Yo Nashi is $89, apparently without drinks, and while that’s a lot I’m still looking forward to dining there when I have the chance based on an article by Clair Lorell on Eater that came out recently and which featured beautiful pictures (by Josh Brasted) of the food.
It is an odd time for restaurants to be opening, obviously, but I am at least somewhat optimistic that the current troubles will be resolved before too long. “Too long” in this context meaning “before the entire industry collapses.”
I don’t have to remind most of you that we have come back from crises worse than the current pandemic. Within a few years of Katrina we had more restaurants than we did before the levee failures. I don’t know if that will happen after a vaccine becomes available and we can get back to dining as we used to do, but if I were a betting man I’d bet on our restaurants recovering.
As a final note, the city’s Mass Feeding Program (of which I am a part as a board member of Chef’s Brigade has officially kicked off and meals are being delivered. If you want delicious meals delivered from local restaurants you should call 311 and sign up. If you are over 60, have kids under 18, are quarantined because of the pandemic, have tested positive for COVID-19 or have a health condition that puts you at increased risk of infection, you should participate.
By doing so you will not only get free food (lunch and dinner delivered to your door), you will also be helping local restaurants, because restaurants get paid for the meals they produce and the more people getting the meals the more restaurants we can bring on board. Additionally, by reducing the times you have to leave your house you’ll also be helping to fight the virus.