New restaurants are a topic of such intense interest locally that, for the first time, we’ve made the topic a cover story unto itself. Listed here are our picks of the best to open their doors over the last 12 months, including our choice of the best of the best. Selections were made by a committee consisting of the magazine’s editorial staff and our food writers. New Orleans is a city famed for its classic old restaurants, and we love them all, but we’re also blessed with a steady flow of new places. Remember and support the old, but here are tempting places you might want to try, too.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JEFFERY JOHNSTON
Le Foret’s Chef Jimmy Corwell
It seems to be all but lost. The “art of grand dining” in America has mutated into “fast dining,” “informal dining” and a host of approaches created by a service industry focused on the changing demands of a moving-ever-faster society.
That is why it’s particularly gratifying to name the Best New Restaurant of the Year: Le Foret.
Le Foret is set in an old building that came close to falling down under its own weight. Located at the downtown-lake corner of Camp and Common streets, it has housed a cigar factory, a meeting hall and trade mission for Germany and a host of pigeons.
When Margaret Shexnayder, of the Raceland LeForets, first met Danny Millan, affable maitre d’-turned-general manager of Brennan’s for more than eight years, the concept of Le Foret was born – though neither one knew it.
Shexnayder and her husband Michael loved Millan. Everyone who has met Millan over his 20 years in the hospitality business will understand this sentiment. During the course of many encounters, both at Brennan’s and then at Restaurant August, where Millan also cast his enchanting spell over guests, the Shexnayders determined that Millan needed a home to call his own.
Shexnayder’s chance encounter with the next significant principal in the enterprise occurred at a Palm Springs, Calif., resort where she and her husband were vacationing. They were quite impressed with the work of the resort’s chef. The Shexnayders learned that he was a Culinary Institute of America graduate, and had served as executive chef at the venerable Greystone, the CIA’s amazing culinary and wine teaching facility in Napa; that he had earned the designation Master Chef; that he had represented the U.S. in the Culinary Olympics two years in a row; and that he had also worked in France, Germany, Southeast Asia, New York City, San Francisco and in his native Atlanta.
When Shexnayder and Chef Jimmy Corwell finally met later in the vacation week she said, “I’m opening a restaurant in New Orleans. Why don’t you join us?”
Corwell, who had no intentions of making a move, factored into his decision Shexnayder’s charming South Louisiana openness, the lure of returning to his home region, plus the opportunity to be an integral part of what was obviously going to be a grand project in a city renowned for great cuisine. It was all too much to resist.
Meanwhile, Millan began the location search and settled on the spot, undeterred by the condition of the building.
He worked on the layout for the four floors, with Shexnayder contributing her renowned decorating sensibilities. Corwell began the task of creating the kitchens and a dining fare that paid homage to New Orleans’ cuisine, while creating something more continental.
Over a period of two years, the 1800s-era building was respectfully renovated, keeping the stately brick-and-mortar interior walls, the original beams and doorways whenever possible and even featuring the hardware of the period while including every modern kitchen apparatus. The motif was completed with period-style wood floorings and dramatic windows flanked by interior shutter treatments, another nod to New Orleans tradition.
The chandeliers look as if they were borrowed from some grand French Quarter apartment, but they’re new, made in Merida, Mexico, to Shexnayder’s specifications. Also to her demands are Italian china and German crystal that grace the dining tables, completing a dining room ensemble that’s a feast for the eyes.
The dining experience can begin at the bar. Against an old New Orleans brick wall is a back-bar made from 17th-century Italian portal doors, and the bar itself has been painted to match the patina of the antiques. To one corner of the bar area, in which guests may also dine, is the enclosed-in-glass wine tower, a dramatic visual presentation of an excellent and diverse wine list.
What emanates from Chef Corwell’s four kitchens – one on each floor – is nothing short of excellence. Onion gratinée is here, crowned with Gruyère cheese soufflé, as are Gulf oysters Rockefeller-style. Then there’s the Le Foret Champignons, a mushroom confit salad punctuated by pâté de foie gras and a hazelnut dressing.
Entrées include grilled prosciutto-wrapped Louisiana quail, caramelized red snapper filet, roasted yellowfin tuna loin, grilled filet of Raceland beef tenderloin and pan-roasted breast of Peking duckling. While the dishes are to be savored, the presentations alone will cause you to pause before you begin the gustatory enjoyment.
As is true in every great dining destination, the service is responsive, but not overbearing. The staff is knowledgeable and eager to assure the excellence of all aspects of the Le Foret encounter.
At the conclusion of the meal, as you’re taking your leave, you’re offered, in the European tradition, a baked-by-hand, individually wrapped Madeleine. When a detail like that isn’t overlooked, you know you’ve been in the presence of people who care about your happiness.
– Tim McNally
American Sector’s Chef John Besh
with Executive Chef Todd Pulsinelli
Museums across the nation are reimagining their restaurant offerings. Cafeteria-style lunchrooms are being phased out to make room for sleek new eateries and now New Orleans has its own brand-name destination in John Besh’s American Sector in the National World War II museum, elevating its fare to a dining destination in its own right.
It is a clever arrangement; the identity of the restaurant references the timeframe of the museum, holding a mirror up to mid-century Americana and presenting a version of classic comfort foods that are refined through the creativity of Besh and his boots-on-the-ground Executive Chef Todd Pulsinelli. The sloppy joe gets upgraded to a terrific Short Rib Sloppy Joe, featuring shreds of tangy braised meat piled high on an onion Kaiser Roll and served on a butcher block with a cone of homemade potato chips.
The challenge was to tempt multiple generations sitting at one table. The menu had to have broad appeal, yet be distinctive. Besh mined a collection of vintage 1940s- and ’50s-era menus from New Orleans and the South. He found that certain items recurred, such as beef tongue. “That one surprised me,” Besh says, “But we put it on and it sells as well as anything.”
Kids will enjoy the selection of housemade sodas that come to the table in fully charged Seltzer Bottles, while adults get their own specialty drink menu, featuring lots of retro-inspired cocktails. Desserts take cues from 1950s Americana as well, with Sector Jacks in lieu of Cracker Jacks (“My boys love these,” says Besh.) and individually wrapped Peppermint Patties.
More daring diners can dig into the fried Chicken Gizzards or the rustic Rabbit Pâté served with celery root slaw and horseradish. Pork lovers will enjoy the Perfect Pig, a variation on a Vietnamese bahn mi, made with pork shoulder, pork belly and country ham. “We finish that with a little spicy sambal-spiked mayonnaise, fresh herbs and pickled vegetables.” says Besh.
“As a patriot and former marine, every time I walk into the museum it just puts a frog in my throat. So it makes me really proud that, through food, we can do our small part to honor the veterans who won for us this incredible life that we get to enjoy today.”
– Jay Forman
Mike’s on the Avenue’s Crispy Duck, left, and Lilikoi Cheesecake, right
Mike’s on the Avenue
Mike Fennelly and Vicky Bayley closed Mike’s on the Avenue in July of 1999, after nine years in operation and near the height of the restaurant’s popularity. During the 1990s, it was one of the most original restaurants in the city.
The space Mike’s occupied in the Lafayette Hotel saw several other ventures come and go. None of them had a shadow of the success that Fennelly and Bayley enjoyed, so it was a pleasure to learn earlier this year that Mike’s would return. When the duo first re-opened the restaurant, it was with a more Asian-influenced menu, and a new name: “Mike’s East-West.” Many of the classic dishes from Mike’s were on the menu, but there was also a sushi bar manned by Fennelly at night, and there were flights of sake available.
Recently, the restaurant returned to its original name, though the “new” menu has remained largely unchanged. There is definitely more of an Asian feel to the restaurant, and that reflects Fennelly’s current outlook. It doesn’t mean that folks who remember the old Mike’s fondly will be disappointed. The crawfish spring rolls with chile-lime sauce are on the menu, and the blackened tuna Napoleon with tamari vinaigrette is back as well.
The spirit of the place is also unchanged. If it’s not as cutting-edge as it was in 1990, it’s still unique to New Orleans. It may seem odd to recognize a restaurant that’s at least in part recreating an atmosphere and a cuisine, but it’s justified: No one has succeeded in pulling off the kind of “fusion” cuisine that makes Mike’s a standard bearer before or since in New Orleans; and the restaurant has changed sufficiently that it really is new.
The sushi bar at Mike’s is one of the most significant changes. The crispy battera roll, on the lunch menu, is a perfect example. It is a large roll with asparagus, crab and tuna wrapped in rice, then covered in panko and fried before being sliced. The sushi bar proper is open at night, and there’s a limited selection of nigiri sushi and sashimi available.
The restaurant looks as good as it ever did, with huge windows barely covered by diaphanous drapes opening onto St. Charles Avenue on one side, and Lafayette Square on the other. Fennelly’s artwork adorns the walls, making it one of the most personal dining spaces in the city.
The return of Mike’s on the Avenue represents more than a nostalgic look back at the city’s dining past. It is evidence that what Fennelly and Bayley were doing two decades ago was not just trendy, but classic.
– Robert Peyton
Domenica’s Anolini in Brodo
The first thought you’ll have when walking into Domenica is “This is Italian?” Sleek furnishings – quite modern – with ultra-cool lighting fixtures hanging from the high ceiling create a space that’s open, yet defined.
Domenica is the collaborative result of John Besh; his partner in the Besh Restaurant Group, Octavio Mantilla; and a talented young chef, Alon Shaya.
“Domenica” is the Italian word for Sunday. It was so named because during their time spent in Italy, some together and some at different moments, Besh and Shaya thought that was the best day of the week.
Shaya notes, “When we were in Italy, Sundays meant good times. That was the day families came together, enjoying great dishes and wonderful wines, along with companionship and love.
“I wanted to create that kind of atmosphere in this restaurant.” (The fact that the restaurant is located across the street from the stately Immaculate Conception church contributed to the decision.)
Shaya and Besh didn’t just bring back with them the warm feelings, concepts and recipes, they brought the equipment, authentic in every detail.
The menu, according to Shaya, is an autobiographical record of his life, starting as a teen working in a pizzeria, to his time in Italy and finally to finding his new home, New Orleans.
Pastry-thin crust pizzas are creative and serve as excellent appetizers. Salumis are house-cured, accompanied by quite an elaborate selection of cheeses, listed on the menu under the headings: Soft, Hard and Blue.
Courses are presented in the traditional Italian dining style, Antipasti, Primi and Secondi, which is then divided into fish and meat categories. All pastas are fresh, made-on-premises.
The culinary nod to South Louisiana is in dishes rooted in Italian culinary heritage, using prime, local ingredients.
Save room for the Dolci course, as the Ricotta Cheese Cake dazzles with both its depth of flavor and its simplicity.
Domenica brings to New Orleans a classic Italian authenticity. Total respect for the region, its people and the cuisine are exhibited in a way that makes you feel welcome and enthused. The Domenica experience might also make you want to travel to Italy … or return to The Roosevelt.
Crescent Pie & Sausage Company’s Redneck Brisket
Crescent Pie & Sausage Company
When Owners Bart Bell and Jeff Baron opened Crescent Pie & Sausage Company at 4400 Banks St., adjacent to their excellent breakfast joint, Huevos, they planned to renovate an existing building. Hurricane Gustav wrecked that building, but the modern, airy structure they built in its place more than made up for that loss.
There are five “pies” on the restaurant’s menu, and each is made with care. The dough is on the thin side, and the toppings make use of local ingredients and the house-made sausages that complete the restaurant’s name. Choices include a Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil), a BLT (bacon, spinach pesto, roasted tomatoes and cheddar), Hot Coppa (salami, arugula, peppadews and bleu cheese), Chicken Marsala (mushrooms, ricotta and chicken) and the Mediterranean pie (lamb sausage, red pepper sauce, olives, artichoke hearts, goat cheese crema and eggplant).
The sausages at Crescent may be even better than the pizzas. Each hits the sweet spot for texture: not too greasy, not too finely ground; there’s enough bite to provide satisfaction while still integrating the individual components.
Made in-house, they change fairly regularly, and when I last dined they included bratwurst served with pickled cabbage and potato salad; merguez that came with arugula and the spicy pepper sauce harissa; and chaurice with pan-fried “mac ‘n’ cheese” and braised greens.
Both the merguez and bratwurst were excellent. The merguez was slightly tart, and had some heat from chiles; the harissa served alongside wasn’t necessary for the heat, but if you pass it up, you’ll regret it. It is full of the flavor of roasted chiles and tomatoes; something like ketchup on steroids.
Crescent’s bratwurst is an excellent example of the German sausage; seasoned with garlic, slivers of which are recognizable as you eat, and the pickled cabbage, potato salad, and house-made pickles are traditional accompaniments. There are sandwiches on the menu at Crescent, some featuring the sausages, but also a “redneck brisket” sandwich that comes with a red pepper aioli and barbecue sauce and a pecan-smoked turkey breast sandwich on ciabatta with fig spread, lettuce, tomato and spicy mustard. All of the sandwiches come with house-made dill chips or a side salad. Meat pies with seasonal fillings, and an interesting “black” jambalaya made with pork, chicken, sausage and black-eyed peas, are appetizers to note.
– Robert Peyton
Capdeville’s Duck Confit Club
CBD office workers have a great new casual food and dining destination in Capdeville. Inspired by the tradition of British social houses, it stakes its identity on good music and times, presenting a gourmet spin on classic bar food and cocktails.
“The idea behind the menu was a casual place inspired by rock ‘n’ roll, whiskey and bourbon,” says General Manager and Partner James Eustis.
To put it into action, Marcus Woodham was signed on to compose a menu encapsulating this philosophy.
Woodham, also the sous chef at Patois, put together an unpretentious, fun and inspired menu. It sets itself apart from the pack with a handful of novel dishes as well as neat twists on traditional bar food.
Novel dishes include an appetizer of small spheres of Fried Red Beans and Rice served with a green onion aioli; while twists on classics include the Duck Confit Club, duck cracklings take over the roll of boring cold cut deli meat to turn a staid sandwich into something special. Another good choice is the Truffled Mac and Cheese, comfort food dolled up with sage, pancetta, peas and scented with truffle oil. Grounding the menu is a short list of specialty burgers, including a Black and Blue burger served with bacon, bleu cheese and Worcestershire-spiked mayonnaise. The Steak Frites is another popular item, made a little more indulgent with the inclusion of New Orleans-style Bordelaise sauce.
Capdeville fills a niche in the neighborhood, catering to the fiefdom of emergent tech companies who call the I.P. Building home, along with denizens of the surrounding high-rise office blocks. “Launch Pad, TurboSquid, iSeatz.com… they’ve really embraced us and helped us a lot,” says Eustis. “They’ve all been incredible supporters and friends.”
a Mano’s Coppa di Testa
Since a Mano opened last fall it has quickly found its stride, turning out authentic regional Italian cuisine in a welcoming atmosphere that manages to feel airy and chic at the same time. Rounding it out is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic waitstaff, a natural complement to Chef and Owner Joshua Smith’s work in the kitchen.
Smith’s passion for Italian was jump-started during his tenure at Teller’s restaurant in Kansas, which promoted the 2006 Turin Olympics by highlighting fare from the Piedmont region. “That was my first little break into regional Italian,” says Smith. “I was struck by how much variation there was on the peninsula and even more on the islands. It was so different than what we know in America.”
Smith spent time cooking in rural Tuscany, but it was the cuisine of Rome that really grabbed him. This passion is reflected in dishes such as his Buccatini all’ Amatriciana, a classically Roman dish featuring guanciale (in-house cured jowl bacon) with onion, tomato, Pecorino and chili flakes. Another dish with a Roman touch is his Semolina Gnocchi tossed with oxtail ragu, which offers an incredible depth and richness of flavor.
The menu showcases a selection of house-cured meats. Burgundy slivers of duck prosciutto are banded with flavorful fat. The copa (cut from near the neck) offers a well marbled, naturally balanced ratio of lean-to-fat and is a favorite of Smith’s. Fans of chicken liver will enjoy his Fegatini con Crostini, crusty bread topped with a generous layer of pâté and drizzled with Saba, a concentrated, raisin and grape reduction. The livers are sourced from Justin Pitts at the Crescent City Farmers Market. A Mano is also one of the few places I’ve seen tripe on the menu. Smith credits the hogshead-loving culture of southern Louisiana in driving interest in his more challenging menu items. “Romans are known for their love of innards and off-cuts. If I was trying to sell this in the Midwest, I wouldn’t get anywhere.”
Smith stays attuned to the seasonal. Figs will play a feature roll in summer, along with cantaloupe. The wine list is exclusively Italian, with many reasonably priced bottles and a focus on central and southern Italy. With its ingredient-driven menu backed by a foundation of great pastas and cured meats, a Mano is a terrific addition to the growing crop of restaurants offering ever more diverse fare in New Orleans.
More worthy new choices
Mesón 923 opened earlier this year at 923 South Peters St., after an extensive renovation of a 19th century building. The restaurant, which is owned by Astrid LaVenia and Jerome Fertel, is a beautiful space, with dining rooms on two floors.. Mesón translates as “inn” or “restaurant” in Spanish, though Chef Chris Lynch’s menu isn’t limited to the cuisine of any one country. Lynch, who worked at Restaurant August and at Gautreau’s, has a wide range of influences, and he sources his ingredients both locally and from far afield. Mesón 923 shows as much promise as any fine-dining restaurant to open in New Orleans in years. You can call them at 523-9200.
Chef Xavier Laurentino closed his eponymous restaurant in Metairie last year, and in February he opened Barcelona Tapas in the space formerly occupied by Café Volage at 720 Dublin St. Laurentino did much of the work to renovate the space himself. The bar is a great place to sample the extensive menu of tapas offered at Barcelona, though there are plenty of tables in two dining rooms. The food is as authentically Spanish as Laurentino himself, a native of the city that gives the restaurant its name. Call 861-9696 for more information.
Susan Spicer opened her Lakeview restaurant, Mondo, on June 14. The restaurant took the space formerly occupied by Lago, at 900 Harrison Ave., not far from Spicer’s home. The menu features items from the wood-burning grill, including pizzas, and a wide variety of small plates and entrées. Large platters include whole roasted fish or chicken and a 20 ounce bone-in ribeye that comes with a choice of sauces and side dishes. Chef Cindy Crosby, a New Orleans native, will handle things at the restaurant in Spicer’s absence. Call the restaurant at 224-2636 for more information.
Chef Eric Sibley, a native of Baton Rouge, has opened Old Metairie Bistro at 2700 Metairie Road. The new restaurant replaces the New City Grille in a small shopping center near Labarre road. Sibley attended the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, and was the sous chef at Pops for Champagne, also in the windy city. While there, he staged at a number of restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea. Sibley described his food to me as “Progressive Comfort Food,” and the menu includes items such as meat pies filled with duck confit and smoked gouda with a cilantro crême fraiche; black drum with a toasted almond puree, haricots verts, candied lemon and meunière sauce; and crispy pork belly with a white bean ragout, braised collards, and toasted cornbread. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and you can get more information by calling 836-6972.