We came back to New Orleans last fall, after months away, ready for a table at Galatoire’s, a dozen raw oysters at Casamento’s and a snowball at Hansen’s. While we longed for old favorites, a few brave restaurateurs opened ambitious places that steered clear of the familiar. If we’re ever forced to take another extended vacation, perhaps one of these restaurants will be where we’ll book our first reservation after returning home.
TABLE TALK: New restaurants along and near the Avenue.Favorite son Kevin Vizard, last seen at Café Adelaide, could cook out of a taco truck and still draw an eager crowd. He opened Vizard’s on the Avenue late last year inside the Garden District Hotel, a space last occupied by Lulu’s in the Garden. The restaurant is tucked away inside the hotel; from the street, it’s barely visible. Nevertheless, fans of chef Vizard have had no problem finding him.
The menu at Vizard’s on the Avenue is a collection of hearty, casual bistro fare that makes liberal use of local products. Each item on the wonderful plate of housemade charcuterie – chicken leg galatine, creamy chicken liver mousse, rabbit rillettes and smoky country pâté – had a deep, complex taste. The scallop flan, a classic French mousseline that chef Vizard first created twenty years ago at his restaurant the Prytania Bar and Grill, reengineers the mollusk. The flan has the familiar taste of a scallop, but the texture is softer and airier than the original.
The playfully named “Chicken and Dumplings” is a pan-roasted chicken surrounded by gnocchi (the “dumplings”), fava beans and mushrooms. The redfish was coated in potatoes, which gave it a deeply satisfying meatiness. The items around the fish were enough for an entire separate entrée: oysters, Brussels sprouts, roasted garlic and apple smoked bacon.
Chef Vizard’s cooking is confident but never cocky. “We just constantly strive,” he says. “Everything I’ve ever cooked, I feel like I should be able to do it better.”
The food at Vizard’s on the Avenue is firmly rooted in New Orleans. Yes, chef Vizard uses local ingredients. More importantly, his cooking reflects an understanding of the importance of food in our city.
“That’s what separates New Orleans, we talk about food while we’re eating, everywhere, everyday,” he says. “After Katrina I went to Nashville, a beautiful city with wonderful people. But they didn’t care about what they ate, because if they did then they wouldn’t eat what they do.”
Jackson arrived quietly in the Lower Garden District. They replaced the sign that used to say “Antoinette” – and a year before that “Sugar Magnolia” – and moved into the narrow space. The room feels like an ancient alley that’s been enclosed and air-conditioned. The handsome brick walls still rise to the second floor balcony. The comfy ground floor booths still sit under oversized mirrors. The former owners even left the muted paintings of ironwork on the walls. Restaurant lore holds that some locations are cursed; these days in New Orleans, though, any building without a watermark looks lucky.
The crisp manner of the maître d’ signals the arrival of a new guard. The greeting is gracious, the service professional. It’s no surprise that the house manager once worked for the Brennan family.
Too many restaurants plop down a bland amuse bouche out of obligation. Jackson pairs that first small bite of food with a taste of wine (a German Silvaner the night I visited), which actually put me in the mood to eat. I hope other restaurants steal this idea.
New Orleanians often know a restaurant’s dessert menu as well as the waiter does (“bread pudding, crème brûlée, chocolate cake”), but not at Jackson. The desserts include a bittersweet chocolate flan and a tart shell filled with creamy dulce de leche topped with whipped cream and candied pecans.
The food between the amuse bouche and dessert, however, suffers from too many ideas – not all of them good. Escargots are almost never fried, and Jackson’s flash-fried escargot hasn’t convinced me that they should be. Bathed in red wine bordelaise, the escargots were soggy with patches of chalky cornmeal batter. A lamb tenderloin, sliced down the middle and propped over a sweet date and fig couscous, was wrapped in grape leaves. It looked like an eggroll dyed for Easter. The briny grape leaves were all that I could taste.
The kitchen, led by chef Michael Brewer, has talent. An expertly paneed green tomato was topped with a nice creamy hollandaise crawfish sauce. A speckled trout was flawless. Jackson has so many good ideas about service, desserts and drinks. If only the kitchen would realize that not every idea should be shared.
Alberta snuck into the city. The clubby restaurant hides on a quiet stretch of Magazine Street. Drive past, and it’s hard to remember what was there before. No sign announces Alberta to passing traffic. The growing crowd of regulars, which fills the dining room and lingers outside by the ivy-covered walls, seem to be attending a private party.
Inside, the red-walled dining room can feel stark until the sun has set. Once the light dims, Alberta seems like Gautreau’s in exile. Most men wear blazers, and that distinguished woman at the next table, receiving extra attention from manager Dana Stovall, was mentioned a few months ago in the New York Times.
Stovall, who runs Alberta with chef Melody Pate, watches the room carefully and stops at least once at every table to chat about her wine list. The pair most recently worked together in California, and Alberta’s food is the culinary equivalent of a Hollywood actor’s accent. It’s clearly American, but it belongs to no specific state or region.
Alberta fills its plates with generous helpings of luxurious ingredients, which justifies the high prices on the menu. A simple bowl of steamed mussels was heaped with saffron threads that infused the broth with the rare straw-like taste of that expensive spice. The sweetbreads were covered in a rich Marsala sauce with a halo of pale green basil oil around the edges.
Few restaurants roast a chicken as well as Alberta, where it is served over braised greens with a vinaigrette full of diced Spanish chorizo. The lamp chops were even better: perfectly cooked, sauced with a cardamom demi-glace and brightened with slivers of fresh mint instead of the traditional mint jelly. Chef Pate’s food doesn’t self-consciously draw attention to itself, but each plate brims with intricate details.
Alberta, Jackson and even Vizard’s on the Avenue may not make recipes that would appear in a Creole cookbook. But as Kevin Vizard reminds us, our love of food and our love of talking about food make us New Orleanians. Each of these new restaurants adds to the spirit of New Orleans by giving us something new to talk about over our next meal.
Todd Price can be reached at tabletalk@neworleansmagazine.com.