Stirring It Up
Keeping up with restaurants in New Orleans has always been a challenge; since Hurricane Katrina it can be a full-time avocation. Not only are there new ones opening in some places where other restaurants once stood, but in many cases the old ones also have a new look or at least a new chef. We – a committee consisting of our editors and our dining and spirits writers – have been listening to what people have been saying. Based on what we’ve heard (and our own observations), we made our selections for what are the best and the newest in the local dining season. For our purposes, new, as in Best New Restaurant and Best New Chef, encompasses the period from October 2007, when the selections were made for last year’s issue, to the present.
So that old acquaintances will not be forgotten, we continue our Honor Roll category in which we spotlight a long-established restaurant. This year’s choice is so established, it’s the city’s second-oldest eatery.
We know that the competition is keen and in every category there are worthy contenders, yet we feel good about this year’s choices. All the more reason to try the area restaurants, and to make the keeping up even more difficult.
Chef of the Year, Sue Zemanick
If all the restaurants in New Orleans were students crammed into a single class, Gautreau’s would be the smart kid with glasses that constantly blows the curve for everyone else. This discrete dining room on Soniat Street has generated a remarkable number of accomplished chefs out of proportion to its modest size. Of these, three have been honored with Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chef” award. The latest is Sue Zemanick, a chef whose classic French preparations and techniques are counterbalanced by her bright-eyed approach, fresh perspective and wit. This delicate balancing act of maintaining the restaurant’s identity while simultaneously reenergizing it is no small feat.
A native of Wilkes-Barre, Penn., Zemanick got an early start in the business helping her uncle with his catering company. In high school she entered the restaurant world, working at the Saber Room, a fine-dining destination in her hometown. “I’d always enjoyed cooking with my family when I was growing up,” she says. “Then when I was in high school I decided to go to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] for a kind of ‘career exploration’ program one summer. That’s what solidified my dreams of becoming a chef.”
After high school she attended the CIA, staying on after graduation on a fellowship to work with Chef Corky Clark, her fish and seafood instructor. “He was very militant and old school and all about hard work,” Zemanick recalls. “He was always yelling at me. He was, and is, my mentor to this day. I still stay in touch with him. It is from him that I got my love of seafood.”
She moved to New Orleans on a whim, not intending to stay, but fell in love with the city, its food and its residents. After working at Commander’s Palace, she moved on to Gautreau’s where she worked as sous chef under Mat Wolfe. When he left in 2005, she was promoted to executive chef. The timing, alas, was unfortunate. “That was three weeks before Katrina,” she recalls.
Fast-forward to Gautreau’s reopening in early 2007, following extensive renovations of both the restaurant and the menu. “I pretty much changed everything on the old menu. And while we’ll always feature a couple of mainstays like the duck confit and filet mignon, the presentation and accompaniments with them will change.”
Zemanick describes her style as fresh and contemporary, with an emphasis on seafood. “Any kind of finfish, crustacean or shellfish – I love them all, particularly shellfish. There is not one piece of fish or seafood that I don’t like.” She pauses. “Except eels. I don’t like eels.”
It is with seafood that her subtle touch shines. Pretty much anything seafood-related gets extra-special attention. Blue Crab Cakes get a makeover with the inclusion of cucumber and radish, served with a punchy harissa-spiced aioli. The inclusion of fresh mint and a tomato gastrique brightens the familiar flavor of sautéed gulf shrimp.
In addition to seafood, Zemanick’s set of tools includes early exposure to the landlocked and heartier cuisines of Eastern Europe. “I’m Czechoslovakian, and growing up we’d eat a lot of bratwurst, sauerkraut and pork. Those flavors are what I grew up with, since the community I grew up in was mostly Eastern European and German.” These influences appear on her menus as well. A visit in the fall saw her Duck Confit accompanied by German potato salad spiked with a vinegary tang.
Other dishes reflecting her Czech heritage included her Wild Mushroom Pierogies with asparagus and caramelized Vidalia onions, enlivened by a dollop of crème fraîche.
The feel of Gautreau’s is genteel and conservative. “Classic French culinary technique is what happens here,” Zemanick says. “I’m not really into the whole molecular gastronomy thing that’s all the rage now. I like to think that I cook like people used to cook.”
How would she describe the food at Gautreau’s? “Um, delicious?” she laughs. “We try to stay within the borders of Europe here; there’s not too much fusion or confusion going on.”
In short, Zemanick invigorates Gautreau’s through positive reinforcement. She defines herself in a sense by taking what the restaurant gives her and making it better. She is more of an artisan than a craftsman. Diners come to enjoy well-executed, classic cuisine elevated by a deft hand and a quick wit. She provides these things and more.
What does she like most about Gautreau’s? “I like that it’s small and intimate and that there’s no sign,” she says. “People that have lived in this neighborhood for years see me walking out of the restaurant and ask me what this place is. I like that it is a little gem; a little secret.” Now, the secret is out. – Jay Forman
Best New Chef, Aaron Burgau
Aaron Burgau opened what has become one of the most popular restaurants in New Orleans a little over a year ago. Patois, which took over the space on Laurel Street formerly occupied by Norby’s, has fast become a hip destination for ambitious cooking. The mind behind the restaurant belongs to Aaron Burgau, our Best New Chef for 2008.Aaron Burgau grew up in a family in which his Sicilian grandmother and French/Philipino mother cooked for the family and included him in the process. In a story that’s common among chefs, he was bitten with a love of cooking early and started working in restaurants at the age of 14 at places including Sal & Sam’s, Jaeger’s and Mr. Gyro’s, where he worked as a cook and dishwasher. After graduating from Jesuit, he went to college at Louisiana State University to study psychology, but ended up working in a bar and grill. When he graduated, he realized that cooking was his passion and decided to pursue it. So with a bachelor’s in psychology, he set off for Johnson & Wales’ campus in Vail, Colo. It was an accelerated program, designed for folks like Burgau who’d gotten degrees in another field but had some experience in professional kitchens. He spent a beautiful year in Vail in the program and at internships on the mountain. Then, he returned to New Orleans to start cooking.While in Vail, he’d spent some time working in a Marriott hotel, and though he learned a lot, perhaps the most important lesson was that he didn’t thrive in the context of a hotel kitchen. Instead, when he returned to New Orleans he took a job with chef Susan Spicer at Bayona. His experience, skill and passion paid off, and after four months he was promoted to the position of Tournant, a jack-of-all-trades in the kitchen who can move from station to station, wherever he’s most needed. After a month of backpacking through Italy with his then-girlfriend (now wife), Burgau took a job with the man he now identifies as his mentor: Gerard Maras. Maras had opened his eponymous restaurant at the end of 1998, and in January 2000, Burgau was hired to man the line. While he was there he worked with what we’d now recognize as an all-star cast of chefs, including John Harris, Paul Williams, Anton Schulte, Slade and Allison Vines-Rushing and Tory and Dave Solazzo. After a year on the line, he became sous chef. Burgau says that Chef Maras always wanted to be a teacher and encouraged him to read the classics in order to provide a framework from which to innovate. In the kitchen at Bayona, the lessons he learned there were principally in attention to detail and how to think like a chef. From Maras, Burgau learned how to make sausages, rillettes, soups, patés and terrines. He learned not only the importance of precision, but also when he could deviate from the rules.After a few other stints, including opening Ralph’s on the Park with Maras in late 2003, Burgau moved to Golden, Colo. to help a friend open a restaurant, then returned to New Orleans where he was working with John Harris at Lilette just before Katrina. He was already thinking about opening his own restaurant. After the hurricane he began a year of bouncing around local kitchens, helping where he was needed and keeping an eye out for the right location – and the right partner. He found the person he needed in Leon Touzet. Touzet’s grandfather grew up in the Pau region of France, just south of Toulouse, and gave the restaurant its name: “Patois” is what Touzet grew up speaking.Burgau’s food is based on the continental cuisines of Italy and France, as befits a classically trained chef, but he wins this award not for his ability to adhere to tradition but because he brings something of himself to every item on his menu. While the menu changes frequently, a glimpse at some recent offerings should tell you about Burgau’s cuisine.For example: sweetbreads with Beluga lentils and a country ham reduction; the creamy richness of the sweetbreads balanced perfectly with the earthy lentils and a sauce that distills what’s good about ham into liquid deliciousness.Burgau’s almond-crusted gulf fish with a satsuma beurre noisette and potato galettes makes it hard to think of a better use for local seafood. His braised short ribs with purple hull peas, fresh pasta and gremolata may be the most emblematic item on the menu. The dish combines Burgau’s Italian heritage with his love of comfort food, and his insistence on using the best local ingredients. The dish is successful because all of the elements come together so beautifully that you don’t see it as innovative, which it most certainly is – and so is Burgau. – Robert Peyton
Best New Restaurant
This year’s Best New Restaurant award goes to MiLa, where chefs Slade Rushing and Allison Vines-Rushing have continued to refine their uniquely expressive approach to contemporary New Orleans cuisine. It is a style that’s light in composition, informed by non-traditional techniques, and consistently takes chances while at the same time managing to reference its Mississippi and Louisiana culinary roots.
Examples? Witness Oysters Rockefeller “Deconstructed”. Oysters are poached in a butter-infused broth, then nested atop a bed of spinach sautéed in browned butter, backed by a chip of crisp bacon. Garlic rounds out the flavor and grated licorice root completes the Rockefeller reference. It is a dish that the Rushings are probably tired of hearing about, but it’s held up as an exemplar of their culinary philosophy: start with a regional ingredient (oysters), break the dish down into its component parts (deconstruct), apply novel techniques (poached in butter a lá Thomas Keller, et al), and finish it with a twist (grated licorice root as opposed to the traditional Pernod or other licorice-flavored cordial). All of this is, of course, a play on Oysters Rockefeller.
Yet this dish is also something of an anomaly, one of just a few fixed items on their oft-changing menu.
Since much of their produce is sourced from a single farm, Lujele Farms in Mount Hermon, this limited availability helps to determine the longevity of a dish, as does their restlessness and creativity.
“We constantly want to evolve,” Allison says. “We also have to keep our cooks engaged. They are creative people as well, and they need to be challenged. Our waiters, too. When we put something new on the menu, it’s their job to sell it, and they do that very well.”
One recurring theme on their menu is an emphasis on simple, clean flavors that frequently stem from purées and juice reductions rather than cloyingly rich demi-glace and butter bases.
“We try to enhance the flavors and ingredients of the region, but we do so in a different way. We go lighter,” says Slade. Diners experience this through their use of vinegars to finish sauces, like the sherry vinegar with their Sweetbreads and Black Truffle Grits appetizer.
“Our overall flavor is Southern,” Allison agrees. “It might be expressed with a pepper-vinegar that finishes a sauce, or baby collard greens we use under a fish. But definitely we use ingredients and flavors that we grew up with, such as soul or Creole food.”
The emphasis on Mississippi and Louisiana (hence the restaurant’s name) is more playful than dogmatic however, throwing the gate wide open to whatever impulse strikes the pair. This, coupled with a fondness for fresh juices and an emphasis on the essence of an ingredient, can lead to bright flavor combinations along with painful responsibilities for their cooks.
“We did a cucumber and horseradish jus.” Slade recalls. “The person who was juicing the horseradish, wasn’t having a good time because their face was burning, but … [it] turned out to be very refreshing.”
As a married couple, the pair works as a team, playing to their respective strengths. “We can switch it up when we need to,” Allison says, “but I like to stick with vegetables and fish dishes. Slade’s more of an innards guy – he likes gizzards. In terms of us working together in the kitchen, I’m kind of the ‘bad guy,’ while Slade is the one who makes everybody laugh. Our skills are complementary of each other. We’re different but we really have the same goal and the same passion.”
Opening MiLa represented a considerable transition for the pair. Their previous restaurant, Longbranch on the Northshore, had 38 seats. Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in New York had 28. Coming into the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, they inherited a space that seated over 90, not including their kitchen’s additional responsibilities for room service, breakfast and banquets. But over the past year MiLa has transitioned nicely, helped in part by a great wait staff, the support of the hotel and a popular three-course lunch special.
“In the beginning, we were kind of trying to balance out the hotel aspect, we were working with a new group of people and we were trying to please too many people,” Slade says. “Now, we’ve finally gotten to the point where we’re getting back to expressing ourselves.”
“When you’re on your own, you make all the decisions,” Allison says. “Here we came into an environment that was already designed, already in motion to a degree. We came in and made it ours, but it took a little time.”
One sign of their success: MiLa is often cited by other local chefs as a place they would choose to go out to eat on their day off. – Jay Forman
Restaurateur of the Year, Joel Dondis
Grand Isle, Joel’s Catering, La Petite Grocery and Sucré
Joel Dondis is the brain behind restaurants La Petite Grocery and Grand Isle, as well as the burgeoning confectionary empire Sucré and one of the premiere catering operations in New Orleans.
Dondis grew up in Lake Charles, where he began his love affair with cooking by working for chef Fernando Oca, a Basque chef. Dondis started washing dishes in the kitchen at Chez Oca by the age of 12. In a story that’s typical of the way chefs are trained in Europe, he was gradually “promoted” to tasks such as cleaning turtle meat or slicing mushrooms to be poached in a “blanc” – tasks that were labor intensive but critical to the traditional food Oca served.
After six years, Dondis was working the pantry station on Friday and Saturday nights, making salads or plating appetizers and desserts, as well as doing any prep work required during service.
Fast forward to 1986, when Dondis graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park and moved to Germany to begin his professional career. He worked at the Michelin-starred restaurant in the Schlosshotel Kronberg, a Relais and Chateaux property outside of Frankfurt, and later with Klaus Trebes at Gargantua, another Michelin-rated spot in Bochenheim.
At the Schlosshotel, Dondis had the opportunity to see a grand hotel restaurant in the European style; there were mushroom foragers and the venison served on the menu had been hunted in the forests nearby. The pastry shop was particularly “over the top.”
At Gargantua, he had the opportunity to work with an iconoclast in an intimate setting. Klaus Trebes was a radical in the 1960s who became a lawyer and an actor before deciding to open a small restaurant in Frankfurt. It was around this time that Dondis also started to display his hallmark entrepreneurial spirit. While we take crawfish for granted here in Louisiana, they’re a delicacy in Europe, and Dondis took advantage by importing live crawfish to Europe during his stay there.
He returned to Louisiana to be with his family after his father’s cancer diagnosis in late 1989. He took a part-time job with a seafood wholesaler in Harahan and as a back-waiter at Mr. B’s. Then Dondis met Emeril Lagasse and started working as a sauté cook at Emeril’s original restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street. Within six months, he was promoted to sous chef.
He stayed at Emeril’s for three years but struggled to make ends meet. His business sense was sharp even then; he recalled telling Lagasse one day how to save thousands of dollars simply by portioning soap used to clean the dishes. Although that earned him a raise, he started thinking about opening his own place.
With a $5,000 loan and some contacts from Lagasse, Dondis started a catering company and hasn’t looked back since. He slowly grew the business, and in 2000, he received an offer to do the food service operations at the Hampton Inn and Suites on Convention Center Street. He recruited Anton Schulte as the chef de cuisine in the catering company and when Schulte decided it was time to try his hand at opening a restaurant, Dondis decided it was the right time for him as well. They opened La Petite Grocery in the spring of 2003.
He opened Grand Isle in June of 2007, around the same time he opened Sucré, a boutique featuring pastries, chocolate and gelato on Magazine Street.
Dondis had some training in pastry from Mary Nell Reck in Houston, but when he opened Sucré, he displayed the same ability to gauge talent that served him well with Schulte and Justin Devillier at La Petite Grocery, and now Mark Falgoust at Grand Isle: he brought in Tariq Hanna, a wildly talented and creative pastry chef.
In addition to his focus on finding the best people, Dondis has an eye for detail.
When developing Sucré, he hired Lee Ledbetter to come up with the interior design but he had a hand in every decision, down to the type and thickness of the glass in the many shelves lining the boutique’s walls.
These days Dondis is concerned with the expansion of Sucré through a production facility and all the attendant details, such as how to ship the incredibly delicate (and delicious) macaroons produced at Sucré to meet all of the Internet and catalog orders he foresees coming from the latest expansion of his business.
Dondis still cooks, but his role these days is to manage his multiple operations. He’s still out there hunting for talent, and paying attention to details. – Robert Peyton
Maître d’of the Year, Orestes Rodriguez
If you’ve been to La Boca you’ve met Orestes Rodriguez. He is the friendly, unassuming fellow who greets you warmly at the door and takes you to your table, periodically checking in to ensure that everything is just the way you want it. He is sociable without being intrusive, his desire for his guests to enjoy their meal is motivated by an honest sincerity and his low-key personality dovetails perfectly with the feel of his restaurant.
Rodriguez’s presence at La Boca isn’t due to lucky chance. Rather, it’s the happy expression of a longtime relationship with Adolfo García, who co-owns the restaurant with Nicolas Bazan. “I knew Adolfo before he went to culinary school,” Rodriguez recalls. “Back then he was a server at La Riviera. We’d run into each other a lot and see each other off and on after working.”
Rodriguez and García remained close friends along the way, so when García and Bazan followed through on their plan for a post-Katrina Argentine-style steakhouse, García knew who he wanted at the door. He tapped his longtime friend for the Maître d’ and General Manager position. Rodriguez slid easily into the role and has been a constant presence at La Boca ever since.
Born in Cuba, Rodriguez came to New Orleans in 1970. “I fell in love with New Orleans when I got here,” he says. “I like the people, I like the culture and I like the fact that the city is a melting pot.” He worked a series of odd jobs, including a stint at Coca-Cola, until he found his way into the restaurant business. He spent an astonishing 30 years at La Riviera in Metairie, a remarkable amount of time in an industry marked by increasingly high turnover. Rodriguez represents a more genteel time when being a host was a profession and not just a job, and La Boca is a more pleasant restaurant because of it.
Along with his duties at the door, Rodriguez is responsible for everything that goes on in the dining room. “I’m responsible for our customers and the servers. I do wine, inventory. I take reservations and set up for the parties, whatever needs to be done pretty much,” he says. Guests at La Boca will see him clearing tables and helping out in just about every way, save working the grill. “No cooking,” he laughs.
The prevailing atmosphere at La Boca is warm and inviting, with a contemporary edge and a bit of urban chic imparted by the exposed wooden beams and brick walls of its Warehouse District locale. The restaurant is small, with just 47 seats augmented by a few at the bar; overall, it is a space that lends itself well to both intimate two-tops and small groups of diners.
However, the Argentine focus on the menu required some due diligence on Rodriguez’s part before opening. “The whole concept was something totally new to me,” he remembers. “We brought the concept in from Buenos Aires and I had to learn about that. I had to go to the library and learn a little bit of the history of everything so I could explain things to the customers.”
A good restaurant isn’t just about good food, though La Boca certainly has this. To truly distinguish itself from the pack, a restaurant’s parts must come together into a harmonious composition. The kitchen, the service and the ambiance all contribute to the diner’s overall experience. And at La Boca, Rodriguez brings these parts together. His genteel nature infuses the dining room and contributes to the positive feel of the place, making the whole somehow greater than the sum of its parts. La Boca is one of those restaurants that, when I go there, I ask myself why I don’t go there more often. There is a welcoming feel to the place, it seems cozy and “right-sized” and perfectly attuned to itself and what it tries to be. And a share of the credit for this goes to Rodriguez. He is down-to-earth, sincere and really cares about his customers’ experiences.
“I feel very comfortable here,” he says. “It is like a home to me. I enjoy what I do. I like the satisfaction of talking to the clients, the feeling I get when I know that they are happy about the meal and the service. I am happy when they have a good experience and say that they look forward to coming back again.” – Jay Forman
Bartender of the Year, Alan Walter
Iam a child of the South, so telling stories is what I like to do. Crafting cocktails is an extension of those aspects of my life,” says bartender Alan Walter of Iris.
It is interesting, but not unexpected, that our Best New Restaurant of two years ago, 2006, continues to adhere to a standard where even the bar service attracts attention and praise. Chef Ian Schnoebelen and Maître d’ Laurie Casebonne, proprietors, have extended their commitment to innovation and quality all the way to the bar.
Walter has always looked to New Orleans as a cultured community – one that possesses an endless fascination for him for its lifestyle and appreciation of fine cuisine. He achieved a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Dallas, even though his father was a professor of literature at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Walter’s childhood home. He wanted to write. He is fluent in Latin and can grasp Greek – two languages he learned to love through reading great works of literature. He also writes plays and music.
Besides his artistic pursuits, Walter’s muse also directed him to New Orleans, where he became curious about ingredients and processes involving cuisine. “I never thought I could be a chef,” he says. “It’s just not something I’m good at. But it’s something I wanted to be good at.”
But Walter thought he could make a contribution to the art that was emanating from a restaurant’s kitchen. He looks upon his craft as a sort of “rough sketch” of what the chef is accomplishing and not something separate.
Walter notes that Schnoebelen always leaves a burner in the kitchen available to him. This freedom and encouragement causes him to experiment – to try and sometimes fail. With a keen commitment to using only fresh ingredients whenever possible, Walter’s biggest challenge is himself.
“I want to find those combinations of ingredients that no one has found before. That is possible only by thinking through not only the raw ingredient flavors but also by [thinking through] how the flavors change when you apply a process.”
Walter’s working area resembles a laboratory more than a bar. His love of science and nature brings about cocktails that are as interesting to discuss as they are to drink.
He makes his own infusions, while many bartenders are perfectly content obtaining them from a supplier. But by creating the “tea” that will serve as the base ingredient to a cocktail, he controls the depth of flavor, the bitterness and the tincture, which brings about a beverage that no one else has made.
Walter and Chef Schnoebelen shop together at Asian markets and other out-of-the-way purveyors for the same reason: to find the raw materials for food and drink that no one else has used in quite the same way. Currently Walter’s using Thai basil, dried and fresh mint, along with vodka, which makes for an excellent palate cleanser, preparing the tongue for what Schnoebelen will be sending to the table.
Walter also makes his own syrups because he wants to ensure they aren’t so sweet as to overwhelm the other actors in his play. Blueberries, strawberries and other seasonal offerings are among his favorites.
To extend control over his craft, Walter is ready to grow his own ingredients and distill his own alcohol. “I live in an apartment, so that’s not possible at this time. But now I know what I enjoy doing and I’m going to live in a place that has a yard and room for nature to provide me with fresh foods.”
Iris is the perfect setting for Walter. In many restaurants, such creativity in the bar area is rewarded with meetings, tastings and cost analysis. At Iris, when Walter feels a drink is ready for show time it’s featured that night on the Specials Board. Ask any bar chef if that’s the world they live in; you won’t be surprised at the answer.
In addition to continuing to write plays, Walter was also bitten by the music bug when he spent some time in Nashville. Not surprisingly, he’s creating songs on a guitar that he taught himself to play – not well, he will assure you, but he enjoys the process.
“What my work allows me is mornings. I’ve always been a morning person and now I have that time free. I can think. I can create. I can develop ideas that interest me. While I’m not certain anyone else would be interested in my plays or in my music, I’m pretty certain people are interested in my creations for my bar craft. That pleases me greatly.”
Alan Walter is a young man who likes to tell stories. Interestingly, that extends to his love of nature and, fortunately, to his clients at Iris. – Tim McNally
It only took 152 years of operation for Tujague’s to get the recognition it deserves as being among the pantheon of great New Orleans dining institutions. But when nicknames for our town were being considered, the Big Hurry was never a possibility.
Tujague’s is the second-oldest continuously operating restaurant in New Orleans, beaten out for the top spot by another beloved establishment, Antoine’s.
The longevity of this shrine to Creole history and cuisine even places second to its building, which served as an artillery armory during the Spanish military presence early in this city’s history.
Still, New Orleans was then, and to a certain extent is now, defined by its Creole heritage, based in European culture. Guillaume and Marie Abadie Tujague saw great opportunity in this thriving city which was American in government but still culturally French.
They left their native Bordeaux in 1852 and Guillaume practiced his craft, butchering, in the French Market for three years before the entrepreneurial spirit moved him to open his own restaurant two doors down from the restaurant’s current location on Decatur, right across from the Old Butcher’s area in the market.
The clientele consisted of dockworkers, sailors and laborers from the market, and served breakfast and lunch. Lunch was a seven-course affair and the restaurant’s reputation was based on two crowd-pleasing dishes, a spicy remoulade sauce over cold, fresh shrimp and a tender, juicy beef brisket, boiled with vegetables and served with a one-of-a-kind horseradish sauce. While there are many more traditional and new dishes being served at Tujague’s today, these two dishes are still the pillars of the menu.
The Tujagues even created “cap” bread, which is immediately claimed by knowledgeable diners. It is always served warm and takes its name from the stretch of dough that’s baked on the top of the loaf.
During the difficult times of the past 150-plus years, Tujague’s never missed serving a meal, even to the Northern occupiers during the Civil War.
During the 20th century, with 56 years of service already behind them, Guillaume Tujague still believed in his adopted New Orleans, with its buggies and horses rumbling by, and provided glasses of beer to bar patrons for four cents a piece.
In his latter years, he sold the restaurant to a young man from Lafourche Parish, Philibert Guichet. In 1912, Guillaume passed away. In 1906, Guillaume’s biggest competitor and neighbor, Madame Eliazabeth Begue, had died. And in 1914, Philibert and Madame Begue’s then-widowed daughter joined together to create Tujague’s in its current location, which was announced by the signage going up at the corner of Madison and Decatur streets.
The typical working-man stand-up bar is dominated by the back of the bar, a work of art in cypress with a central mirror that graced a Parisian bistro for more than 90 years before settling in its new home in the New World around 1913.
Tujague’s is now under the watchful eyes of the Latter family, who purchased the restaurant in the early 1980s. To their ever-lasting credit, they’ve retained the truly authentic Creole approach to dining: Multiple courses, never straying from the staples, served in a congenial atmosphere.
Each day the restaurant features a six-course offering of whatever is freshest. The Shrimp Remoulade is followed by a Soup of the Day. Then the diner receives the most tender beef brisket on the planet, accompanied by the historic Creole sauce. There are always four choices, and four choices only, for the main course. Those always include a fish dish or two, possibly chicken, probably beef and whatever else assures the kitchen that the diner will be satisfied and entertained.
Chicken Bon Femme, a house specialty, appears on no menu. You have to know to ask for it. Beautifully tender chicken baked to a golden brown, covered in spices and garlic. For those who believe the French Quarter is a haunted place, this dish assures that vampires will not come to call.
Sometimes the Modern Age can be a troublesome place, impersonal and hectic. Tujague’s is a refuge where gentle history surrounds and traditions are upheld.
Dining here puts one in touch with ancestry and Creole life. Good times become better.
And if that isn’t enough to merit a place on New Orleans Magazine’s Honor Roll, then this city has lost its soul. Rest assured, that’s not the case. – Tim McNally
Best New Café
Il Posto Café
New Orleans native Madison Curry earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University, then spent 10 years in Manhattan. But New Orleans beckoned her back – to open an Italian Café on Dryades Street called Il Posto Café.
“The truth of the matter is that I have always believed in a healthy lifestyle, which includes eating healthy,” says Curry.
Italian and healthy are seemingly mutually exclusive. But Curry is quick to point out that when food is fresh and light, it’s good for you.
Il Posto reflects her newfound appreciation and love for all matters Italian. As soon as she embarked upon her first visit to Italy she was fascinated; she couldn’t shake her love for the people, the culture, the history and the cuisine. “It’s not all about heavy tomato sauces, but rather about vegetables, cheeses, breads and, yes, even meats, created and processed in a fresh, healthy fashion.”
Hot, pressed sandwiches (paninis) are among Il Posto’s specialties. Even the Grilled Cheese, made with walnuts and honey, takes that common food item to new heights. “The children who come in are enamored with our Grilled Cheese. They love it, and they love to just look at it. They’ve never had one like that.”
There are antipasto platters, full of vegetables and meats, as well as salads, soups and even wines. Il Posto has also begun a successful program of Happy Hour specials on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Curry adds, “We keep it fresh and we keep it seasonal. The main menu remains pretty much the same but we have daily specials featuring what we think are truly outstanding ingredients purchased from the many fresh markets which have sprouted up all over New Orleans.”
Occasionally she misses the exciting pace of life in New York City but she’s truly found her niche back in her hometown, just a few blocks from where she grew up.
— Tim McNally
Best New Cookbook
Ralph Brennan’s New Orleans Seafood Cookbook
This year our award for Best Cookbook goes to Ralph Brennan’s New Orleans Seafood Cookbook. It’s an odd beast as far as cookbooks are concerned, because while it’s beautiful enough for the coffee table, it’s real home should be in your kitchen.
The book combines the talents of several exceptional folks: Ralph Brennan of course, along with his VP for Marketing Charlee Williamson, executive chefs Haley Bitterman, Gregg Collier, Chris Montero and Darrin Finkel, food writer Gene Bourg and Paulette Rittenberg, who, in addition to writing about food has tested recipes for The Times-Picayune. The outstanding photography is by Kerri McCaffety, who’s notable for her work on the book Obituary Cocktail, among others.
Brennan intended this book to be definitive, and it’s as close to that lofty goal as it’s possible to come on such a broad topic. In addition to the scores of classic and more innovative recipes, there are sections on how to fillet a whole fish, open oysters, clean crabs and other basic techniques.
The recipes fall into two basic categories: classics and more imaginative, but still grounded, dishes. Do not buy this book expecting a recipe for Hollandaise Foam with Sous-Vide Softshell Crawfish. These are all practical recipes. That is not to say that they’re all easy. There are a lot of recipes that require time and effort, which is as it should be. Nobody wants to eat a “quick” Crawfish Bisque. Well, nobody in New Orleans anyway.
One of the best group of recipes starts with the classic method for Oysters Rockefeller, then moves on to a number of variations; with each, the book discusses options such as serving the dish on the half shell, in ramekins or in a baking dish. It is this kind of attention to detail that will really benefit the home cook but which is too often lacking from cookbooks.
Brennan’s background as a restaurateur undoubtedly has a lot to do with the consistency of the recipes. It has been a hallmark of the cooking at Ralph’s on the Park, Bacco, Red Fish Grill and Mr. B’s. That said, the cookbook doesn’t really derive its identity from any of Brennan’s restaurants in particular. Rather, it’s a compendium of New Orleans recipes – New Orleans being the one unmistakable connection.
The cookbook isn’t solely aimed at New Orleanians or even residents of South Louisiana. Where appropriate, substitutions for Louisiana products are suggested.
But there’s never a sense that the authenticity so many of us prize in our cuisine is lost. This is one of the rare cookbooks that will transcend current trends; it should remain a classic for many years. – Robert Peyton