While last year’s restaurant scene was dominated by pop-ups, burgers and more casual fare, 2012 is already notable for its upscale dining options. Some restaurants are helmed by ambitious young chefs making their first move, while others are extensions of already established names. And with more high-profile places slated to open soon, it’s shaping up to be a big restaurant year in the Big Easy.
In the Warehouse District, chef Phillip Lopez recently opened the doors to Root, where his creative menu and progressive techniques are giving New Orleanians a new way to experience ingredients they thought they knew well. “The idea of having my own restaurant had been an idea of mine since I was a little kid,” says Lopez about owning his first restaurant. “This is the culmination of my experiences traveling and seeing things from different aspects, philosophies and cooking styles.”
Root presents an attractive environment in the space formerly occupied by Feast. Its main dining room is tasteful and enhanced by organically inspired flourishes that soften the otherwise minimalistic approach. It is a fresh palate for a young chef to make his start as an owner. “There has been some misconception with the name, though,” Lopez admits. “A lot of people think Root means a vegetarian restaurant.” Vegetarian it is most certainly not, unless foie gras cotton candy counts as a vegetable (it doesn’t, by the way). The name Root refers instead to “Inception, Birth, Beginning” e.g. Lopez’s first foray as owner.
When Lopez was chef at Rambla, he focused mostly on Spanish and French cuisine. At Root, the sky is the limit. “We take influence from everywhere – India, Cuba, Vietnam,” he says. In referring to influences, he’s talking about flavors. Techniques are another story. Here Lopez dips into a bag of modernist tricks to recast familiar ingredients in unfamiliar ways. His dish of smoked scallops, served in a Cohiba cigar box, comes dusted with chorizo dust. The “dust,” a dehydrated then powdered iteration of the house-made chorizo, is an experiment in technique that offers an alternative presentation of a familiar ingredient. “The modern element is more an ability to control the actual ingredient, but the ultimate idea is never to lose the value of the flavor,” he says.
In other hands, these techniques might come across as gimmicky, but Lopez’s approach respects the flavor first. I found this to be true with the Smoked Cornmeal Encrusted Oysters, which come topped with a dollop of Manchego foam. Not generally a fan of foams, in this case I felt the rich flavor paired well with the oysters and enhanced the overall dish.
Root is also the latest place to wade into the fray of in-house cured meats. Lopez’s skew toward French and Spanish, with a whiff of North Africa – the Moroccan Spiced Rillettes, for example. His lunch menu tones down the more acrobatic efforts and offers straightforward choices that still maintain a personal imprint, like his smoked veal pastrami sandwich and his version of a bahn mi, loaded up with his house-made pâtés and the Kewpie mayonnaise so beloved by the Japanese. Lopez’s creativity follows through to the dessert menu, which offers up inventive sweets such as a sweet corn caramel flan served with vanilla milk foam.
Not far away, Tamarind by Dominique Macquet graces the ground floor of the sleek new Hotel Modern. Tamarind’s large picture windows look out on Lee Circle. But the focus inside is French Colonial cuisine, a style of cooking that plays to the strengths of both Macquet and his longtime chef de cuisine Quan Tran.
“Klaus Ortlieb, one of the owners of Hotel Modern, asked me to come up with a new concept,” says Macquet. “I wanted to do something different, so I went back to my roots. I grew up on the island of Mauritius, where I ate a lot of Vietnamese and French cuisine, and I came up with a French Vietnamese concept. We sent Tran, my sous chef of 12 years, on a two-month trip to Vietnam to rediscover its cooking. When he came back we finished putting the concept together. It is a great honor to see one of my guys doing so well and to work with him on an exciting project like this.”
The result is a stylish package that features a French technical approach to local ingredients with a Vietnamese influence in terms of flavor. “At Tamarind, every dish tries to marry French and Vietnamese cuisine,” explains Macquet. The crispy cured and slow braised pork appetizer is in essence a reinvention of the traditional steamed pork bun. At Tamarind it’s realized more as a mini-poor boy than the traditionally enclosed bun. The pork is first cured with star anise, ginger and lemongrass, then confited in the traditional manner. “To put it together, we steam the bun, caramelize the pork and then dress it with tamarind aioli,” Macquet says. “The untraditional shape of the bun is to let people know that we make it in-house.”
The Vietnamese flavors also come to the fore in dishes like the maple leaf duck leg confit, cured with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and served with a bok choy salad dressed with hoisin vinaigrette. Macquet cuts the usual cloying sweetness of the hoisin with apple cider vinegar, then emulsifies it with grapeseed oil.
“A lot of the ingredients used in Vietnamese cuisine are grown here in New Orleans,” Macquet says. “We source a lot from Hong Kong market. For Tamarind though, I order it by the case from California. It makes a big difference. The restaurant is named Tamarind after all, so I have to bring it in fresh!”
For high-end dining and particularly for high-end dining in a hotel, the prices are quite reasonable. Appetizers fall between $8 and $10, and entrées are in the low-to-mid $20s.
Fine Dining Finds
Hyatt Regency New Orleans
601 Loyola Ave.
200 Julia St.
936 St. Charles Ave.
Borgne to Cook
Borgne, a joint effort between chefs John Besh and Brian Landry, right, mines one of the few remaining untapped culinary reserves of Louisiana culture: the Isleños, descendants of Canary Islanders who settled around New Orleans in the late 1700s. Formerly chef at Galatoire’s, a restaurant not exactly known for creative self-expression, Landry finally gets room to play here. A clever menu of well-executed seafood items is the result. With a bar that feels as long as a Canary Island shoreline, Borgne is geared towards big crowds, but Landry and Besh elevate it admirably above the tourist and convention fray.