Gathered within the Riverbend’s embrace is one of the most diverse collections of restaurants in the city. Backed by the defining green mound of the Mississippi’s levee, this quietly vibrant area attracts a mélange of college students, locals and streetcar-riding tourists. You want Indian? There is Sara’s; Hana for sushi; Jazmine Café for Vietnamese; and Cooter Brown’s for arguably the city’s best bar food. Anything you like you can find here, and the offerings are plumped up with newer additions such as Pupuseria La Macarena, offering Central American cuisine in a quiet, Wi-Fi enabled setting.
Frank Brigtsen is one of New Orleans most decorated chefs, though he’s missing one thing that usually comes with such accomplishments: an ego. With a resume that reaches back into the heyday of the 1980s Cajun craze, Brigtsen was part of the cadre of chefs who propelled New Orleans to the forefront of American cuisine and helped lay the groundwork for today’s culture of celebrity toques. And while by and large the spotlight has moved on to new names and faces, Brigtsen’s, the little cottage on Dante Street, has remained true to its roots.
For appetizers, the namesake sauce for the Shrimp Remoulade is far better than most, with a vinegary undercurrent and complex seasoning that complements the plump, perfectly boiled shrimp. A silky hillock of unexpected guacamole smoothes out the spice, and deviled eggs splashed with Chipotle Tabasco and a crisp slaw of mirliton corn relish rounds out the dish. Another appetizer of Veal Sweetbreads is very good – a simple sautéing in a sauce of lemon and garlic butter let the delicate taste of the glands shine through, augmented with a potato and leek pancake.
Brigtsen has a famously deft hand with duck, and his roasted bird served over cornbread dressing and honey-pecan sauce is usually on the menu. Draped over it is a layer of crispy duck skin. A Gulf fish special, Sheepshead got dressed up one night with a parmesan crust, lump crabmeat and a silk lemon mousseline sauce.
Dante’s Kitchen keeps guests coming back with its constantly changing menu. Enquiring appetites want to know what Chef Emmanuel Loubier has been up to this week. Loubier draws on the Crescent City Farmers Market along with a roster of local purveyors to turn out his imaginative and quirky fare. Irreverence pops up on the menu descriptions as well – a Statler and Waldorf Salad, for example, references the cranky old men of Muppets fame. The salad is anything but fussy, with its jumble of apples, celeriac, kohlrabi shoots and buttermilk vinaigrette. The molasses spoonbread that comes out in a micro-skillet is drizzled with butter and honey. At the bar, juices are squeezed fresh with an old-fashioned press, and a selection of homemade infused vodkas ensure that cocktail lovers have quality beverages at hand.
Loubier has been experimenting with pickles and on a recent visit offered up a pickle platter as an appetizer. I ordered it to supplement the regular apps. The assortment featured peanuts, watermelon rind, white carrot, red beet and yum yum peppers, along with sliced cucumber, one styled like a kosher sour and the other sweet in the style of a bread and butter chip. For most of the pickles, the seasoning used in the brine was subtly Asian, with notes of five-spice and star anise. The colors popped on the plate, making it visually attractive.
Moules fans will like the Prince Edward Island Mussels that come in a roasted tomato-infused broth rounded out with lemony Boquerón anchovies, grilled peppers and guanciale – a delicious and uncommon bacon-like meat made from pig jowls. The BBQ Shrimp is a winner as well, with three heads-on jumbo gulf shrimp lurking in a tureen of molten Turbodog and rosemary-enhanced butter.
For the main course, a Low and Slow Wild Boar’s Leg entrée was less successful, with its pinto beans overwhelmed with chili seasoning and cumin leaching across each component, even into the potato salad. Another entrée of Fennel Crusted Scallops was far more successful, served with a rich orange-enhanced bordelaise sauce and roasted farmer’s market squash.
Dinner prices skew slightly north of what one might expect, but their weekend brunches remain a personal favorite of mine as well as a very good deal. Dante’s is also a fun place to take guests from out of town.
Refuel, a sleek little sandwich, coffee and breakfast shop has been serving quality food since it opened a few years back. The emphasis is on fresh ingredients and healthy twists on sides such as their fruit salad. If the coleslaw is available, try it out as it’s one of the better versions around town, with a light, creamy dressing and just the right amount of sweetness without veering to the cloying end of the scale.
For salads, try the Pulled Chicken with apples, roasted pepper and feta. The Cuban Sandwich is good as well, as is their Spicy Chicken Salad sandwich. Brunch on the weekends is well worth the visit and makes for a healthy alternative to Camellia Grill. The Belgian Waffle with fruit and whipped cream is a favorite, though I often opt for the Nutella-topped version (OK, not so healthy …).
In colder weather, be sure to try some of the more exotic tea and coffee selections. These add an extra dimension to whatever dish you order. The Chai Chiller is more akin to a milkshake than a beverage. Refuel is only open for breakfast and lunch during the week and for brunch on the weekends.