Susan Spicer first gained a name in New Orleans as an executive chef when she opened the Bistro at Maison de Ville in 1986. Four years later, she and business partner Regina Keever opened Bayona, which remains one of the finest restaurants in the city.
Spicer has received numerous awards for her cooking, including being named the Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in 1993. This year she was inducted into the 2010 James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. I don’t have the time to list all of the other honors she’s received; she’s obviously a very talented chef.
But for a few years now, Bayona has been the only venue for fans of Spicer’s cooking to experience her craft, so when word leaked that Spicer was considering a restaurant in Lakeview, it quickly became the most anticipated opening in New Orleans.
Spicer opened Mondo last week at 900 Harrison Ave. It may seem too early to “review” Mondo, and I suppose it is. I find it hard to care about that. I like Susan Spicer’s food, and I wanted to eat at Mondo. It is too early to provide a comprehensive review of the restaurant, but I don’t subscribe to the notion that you shouldn’t visit a new restaurant for six months. Since I’ve had two meals at Mondo already, I hope you don’t mind if I share my thoughts.
The renovation of the building that formerly housed Lago took a long time, but the work paid off with a comfortable, elegant restaurant. There are entrances both on Harrison and on Marshall Foch Street, and the impression I got upon opening the door off Marshall Foch was that the restaurant was much larger than it appeared from the outside. There is a hostess station directly in front of the Marshall Foch entrance, and a bar greets diners who enter from Harrison.
Two main dining rooms flank the central hostess station; the one closest to the Harrison entrance features more bar-friendly seating, and the main dining room is both more sedate and larger. The entire restaurant is decorated in muted colors –– greens, tans and browns predominate; the light-colored wood of the tables is left uncovered. In addition to four- and six-seat tables, there are booths that line the exterior wall in the larger dining room that can comfortably sit four adults. That room also hosts the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. On my first visit, the oven was undergoing some repairs, but on the second, it was responsible for some of the best food I experienced at Mondo.
Mondo’s menu announces that the restaurant serves “Flavors of the world, with a New Orleans accent,” which is probably not a bad way to describe Spicer’s cooking in general. A starter of fried hominy with lime and chiles is an almost perfect snack to enjoy with a beer and clearly inspired by the cuisine of Mexico and Central America. Thai meatballs made of shrimp and pork on lemongrass skewers announce their country of origin as does the Chinese braised duck leg served with a crispy turnip cake. There’s a jerked chicken thigh dish that comes with a pineapple salsa to represent the Caribbean and an appetizer of warm Gorgonzola cheese on ciabatta toast with mostarda that’s among several Italian items on the menu. Those also include pizzas such as a classic tomato, basil and mozzarella; mushroom, fontina, leek and pancetta; Italian sausage, rapini and Gorgonzola; and bacon, egg, potato, ricotta and Parmesan. The pizzas are 12 inches in diameter with an excellent topping-to-crust ratio, by which I mean that the pizzas are not overloaded with toppings. Mondo correctly recognizes that pizza is as much about the crust as the toppings.
In addition to the globe-spanning cuisine that Spicer so enjoys, she made an effort to include some dishes that call New Orleans home: crawfish étouffée, Gulf fish served broiled or sautéed and prepared in the classic meuniere or amandine style and fried eggplant with a lemon aioli that reminded me of the classic starter from Galatoire’s.
The food I’ve sampled so far has been very good. I mentioned the fried hominy above, but it’s worth revisiting. Hominy, or dried corn kernels treated with an alkali solution, look something like chickpeas when they’re fried, but they have a more yielding texture. The fried hominy served at Mondo is damn near irresistible. I doubt I will ever sit down for a meal there without ordering them, though there are a bunch of other “snacks” on the menu that look appealing as well.
The broiled lamb T-bones come with a fresh mint-pepper jelly and goat cheese-ricotta stuffed agnolotti. The lamb was very tender, two medium- size chops garnished with tiny greens and glazed with the aforementioned sweet-hot pepper jelly. The pasta in the agnolotti is made in-house, and it confirms my belief that Spicer’s kitchen is incapable of turning out improperly cooked pasta. The mild cheese filling offset the assertive mint-pepper jelly nicely.
I’ve also sampled the slow-roasted pork shoulder, which comes with black beans, pico de gallo and plantains cooked in the manner of tostones. The pork was incredibly tender and rich. The black beans were a little under-seasoned and benefitted from a good squeeze or three of lime juice. I prefer plantains cooked to a tender sweetness, but the added starch from Mondo’s preparation may be a better fit with the pork.
The pizza with mushrooms, fontina, leek and pancetta was outstanding; as intimated above, the toppings didn’t overwhelm the crust, which was on the thin side but substantial enough to hold up. It definitely benefitted from the high heat of the wood-burning oven; its crust had a crisp exterior, and the quick cooking time spared the toppings from prolonged exposure to the heat.
The Thai shrimp and pork meatballs were a huge hit at my end of the table. Skewered on slivers of lemongrass, the meat was oblong and served with a sauce that tasted of burnt sugar, fish sauce and vinegar. There was also a healthy dollop of sriracha on the plate that added a welcome bite of heat.
The Abita root beer float that I ordered for dessert brought me back to my grandmother’s house. The ice cream was excellent, and the Abita root beer has the right amount of sugar to satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. The Flaugnarde –– a thick crepe cooked in the wood-burning oven and served with raspberries –– was delicious: sweet, rich with butter and a perfect foil for the seasonal fruit. Other desserts include a lemon tart that’s the perfect balance of sweet and tart; a double chocolate cake; and cinnamon beignets with yogurt ice cream, nuts and honey.
Service is very good for a restaurant that has been open for such a brief period of time, but that’s not unexpected from a chef of Spicer’s caliber. The servers I’ve experienced on two visits to Mondo have been poised and comfortable, and a couple of hiccups having to do with the wood-burning oven being out were easy to overlook. Even when the restaurant was very busy, I never felt abandoned. Not like that time when my parents left me with the circus. Not at all like that.
Mondo is currently open for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and from 5:30 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday. Brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sundays, and Spicer plans to open for lunch in the next few weeks. Call the restaurant at 504/224-2633 for more information or to make a reservation for parties of five or more.