Periodically, my work as an attorney takes me to exotic locations. I have recently traveled to Destrehan and Gonzales, for example. In the past month, I have spent several nights in Shreveport, whence hails one of the associates in my office. From time I’d spent in Shreveport a few years ago, I knew that there was good eating to be had, but it was useful to have a native son to tip me off to a few restaurants I might not have found on my own.
Wine Country Bistro is located in Pierremont Mall at 4801 Line Ave. “Mall” is a generous characterization for Pierremont. Were I choosing the name, I’d add “strip,” but once you enter the doors, you won’t remember the atmosphere outside. It’s a comfortable place, and when I dined, it was full of people who were obviously regulars. That’s an impressive feat for a restaurant that opened in 2007.
Chef Michael Brady’s style of cooking is described on the restaurant’s Web site as “homegrown yet refined.” “Homegrown” shouldn’t be mistaken for “home-style” because Brady displays some sophistication on the plate. Tomato soup is certainly home-style cooking, but the roasted red tomato soup with apple-smoked bacon and thyme-chive crème served at Wine Country has a bit more panache than the Campbell’s from a can my mother served me when I was sick. Veal sweetbreads served over butter-whipped potatoes with a red grape and tarragon brown butter emulsion is fairly inventive, and the seared duck breast accompanied by jalapeño and basil corn pudding, braised collards and a cherry demiglace is not diner fare.
At dinner, the restaurant offers a three-course prix fixe menu for $29 that includes a glass of wine, and that’s what I ordered when I was there. I started with a salad of wild arugula, spiced walnuts and sautéed bread with mascarpone cheese and a port-balsamic dressing. I’m not sure what “wild” means with regard to the arugula, but the salad was very good. For the second course, I had grilled pork loin served over goat cheese-enhanced grits, grilled asparagus and a poblano pepper and caramelized onion demiglace. Once more, it was a nicely executed dish, with just a little heat from the poblanos and sweetness from the onions. Each element on the plate was cooked properly, and that’s not easy to do with pork loin. For dessert I had a mixed berry cobbler with buttermilk ice cream. I was pretty much full when they set that plate in front of me, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t clean it. To my credit, I did not actually lick the plate –– as far as you know.
Wine Country is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Contact them at 318/629-9463 if you want to make a reservation or need more information.
Bella Fresca, which is located not far from Wine Country at 6307 Line Ave., also shares an exterior that belies the interior’s modern décor. The name implies an Italian restaurant, and there are certainly Italian dishes on the menu –– beef carpaccio with white truffle oil, lemon, Parmigiano- Reggiano and herbs; veal scalloppini over a crabmeat risotto with lemon and grilled broccolini; and grilled chicken with cheese tortellini in a pesto- Alfredo sauce, for example. But there are just as many Asian influences, including an appetizer of sesame-seared tuna with a lemon-yuzu hot sauce and cumin-scented rice pilaf and the sesame-tempura shrimp with a rosemary-garlic sweet-and-sour sauce and basil oil that I had when I was there last.
Chef Weston McElwee’s cooking doesn’t lend itself to easy categorization. Grilled shrimp could be Italian, but he serves them with curried rice, garlic spinach and a Southwestern-inspired smoked habanero cream. An herb-crusted trout comes with a sweet chile coulis, wasabi mashed potatoes and shaved asparagus. Even crab cakes get a slight twist from a chipotle rémoulade. These kinds of disparate influences can sometimes result in a mess on the plate, but McElwee pulls the balancing act off, at least in my admittedly limited experience. Bella Fresca also has a fairly extensive catering menu, including items not on their lunch or dinner menu. The restaurant is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., on Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. If you want more information or to make a reservation, the restaurant’s phone number is 318/865-6307.
The Village Grille is located at 1313 Louisiana Ave. in a rectangular white building that looks fairly unassuming from the street. The interior is dimly lit, with a bar to your left as you enter and a narrow dining area that runs most of the length of the structure. The restaurant specializes in Chicago prime beef, but the menu, which is not written out, offers a lot more options than a typical steak house.
Chef Reynaldo Jandres is from El Salvador originally, and our server, Harley, told us that he credits his mother with instilling a love of cooking in him at an early age. Apart from the cilantro in that pesto and the occasional use of chiles, there’s not much to indicate Jandres’ country of origin in the restaurant’s menu. He does, however, run specials frequently, and when I got in touch with the restaurant, I was told that he was currently serving an appetizer he calls “fire shrimp,” which is jumbo shrimp marinated in lime juice, olive oil and serrano peppers; charbroiled; and then served with an avocado relish and spicy tomato salsa and set atop a crispy flour tortilla.
The fact that the menu is not written down is, to my mind at least, something of an affectation, but if all of the wait staff are as efficient and entertaining as the gentleman who served us recently, I wouldn’t mind. I started with Oysters Reynaldo, which featured three charbroiled oysters with a cilantro pesto, jalapeños and Parmesan cheese. It’s not often that I taste a charbroiled oyster dish that can compete with the classic iteration at Drago’s, but this was at least in the running. The pesto and a subtle heat from the chiles worked perfectly with the oysters. The venison in a port reduction sauce I had as a second course was not quite as successful, suffering a bit from an inelegant presentation, but the flavors were good, and the meat was tender.
I also had a chance to try the beef carpaccio, in which thinly sliced beef was placed over a bed of mixed greens and garnished with artichoke hearts. It’s not the classic presentation, but the meat was outstanding, and that’s the critical element. A crabmeat salad featured jumbo lump meat that had been sautéed but which stayed sweet and juicy and which was served with croutons, bacon and tomatoes.
After the menu is declaimed by your server, he or she will bring by a platter on which you can see samples of the steaks available that evening. These were very pretty cuts of meat, well-marbled and generously portioned. Despite the temptation, I decided to go with a fillet of snapper with crabmeat and a lemon-butter sauce. I wasn’t disappointed, as the fish was cooked until just done, and the crabmeat was every bit as good as it had been in the salad. The restaurant normally has live Maine lobsters available, but on the night I dined, they were out.
The Village Grille is more expensive than the other two restaurants I visited, but it was also the most elegant, and I thought the expense was worth it. Owner Joey Cush stopped by our table toward the end of the meal and graciously gave us a slice of carrot cake with cream cheese icing to share. I probably sound like a broken record, but I am not a fan of sweet desserts as a general rule. But just as with the berry cobbler at Wine Country Bistro, I had a hard time putting my fork down until the carrot cake was gone.
The Village Grille is only open for dinner, from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, and from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. It does not have a Web site, but you can call them at 318/424-2874 for reservations. My advice: Ask for Harley Harville as your waiter.
In addition to the restaurants above, I had a chance to eat lunch at Strawn’s Eat Shop –– or rather, Strawn’s Eat Shop Too. I don’t have the time now to discuss Strawn’s at length, but if you’ve been to Shreveport, you may be familiar with the three restaurants. Strawn’s is a classic lunch counter and blue plate-type restaurant, the original location of which is near Centenary College at 125 King’s Highway. In addition to great burgers and fried chicken, Strawn’s specializes in pies. When I was in Shreveport, the Ruston peach pies were not yet available, but the slice of strawberry pie I had instead was almost enough to salve my disappointment. Visiting the Web site linked above should give you all the information you require about Strawn’s, but if not, call the original location at 318/868-0634 and Strawn’s Eat Shop Too at 318/798-7117.
If you find yourself in Shreveport, I hope you’ll find one or all of these mini-reviews helpful. There are a number other restaurants in Shreveport that were recommended to me that I didn’t get to on this trip, including the Columbia Cafe, the Noble Savage Tavern and the Olive Street Bistro, and I’d love to hear from anyone with thoughts on those places or suggestions for other restaurants worth visiting.