Monday, August 30, 2010

The Post-Katrina Top 20: #5 - #1

Today, we unveil the Top 5 additions to the New Orleans Dining and Drinking Scene Post-Katrina. We knew this was a cliche idea. However, going through the exercise provided us with an opportunity not only to examine the New Orleans restaurant scene in toto but also to look with special favor upon what came after the storm. Those restaurateurs, bartenders, and shopkeepers who chose New Orleans to hang their shingles or branch out, despite the odds.

First off, we realize many great restaurants struggled to return to New Orleans. They found their cooks, bussers, and waiters all over the country and brought them back. They dealt with insurance adjusters and new regulations. They reopened with skeletal crews and out of whack balance sheets. To them we owe a lot. For if they don't come back, these places don't exist. So a big round of applause to all the restaurants in New Orleans that reopened after Katrina.

We also know there are many great places that didn't make the list. Places like Il Posto, which Rene refuses to write about because he doesn't want to fight crowds on Saturday morning trips for a cappuccino and a California bagel. Places like Meson 923 which have returned to New Orleans a prodigal chef in Chris Lynch. Places like Mondo and Coquette which are putting good food in great neighborhoods and watching the lines form. And restaurants, stores, and bars that have yet to be conceived, developed and opened.

Cue the Chairman of the Board, "The Best is Yet to Come."

#5: The Sun Rarely Sets on The Besh Empire - In the days after Katrina, John Besh and his trusted cooks Blake LeMarie and Alon Shaya used the Katrina trinity (propane tanks, flatboats, and ice chests) to serve loads of hungry refugees and recovery workers. Nearly five years later, Chef Besh was once again at the forefront, this time in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In between those times, he did little more than open 3 new restaurants and continue the legacy of a 4th. Not a bad stretch, if you ask us.

But it's not so much the quantity as the quality and diversity of the Besh family of post-K restaurants which warrants high praise. When Cobalt failed to reopen after the breach, Besh seized the opportunity to reinvent the first floor of the Masonic Temple into an Alsatian brasserie, complete with pulley and belt-driven fans which were a trademark at Kolb's. Enter Lüke, now the most popular restaurant for a business lunch in the CBD.

The dichotomy of forward thinking paired with a nod to the past was exemplified in two of Besh's post-K acquisitions. When his former mentor Chris Kerageaorgiou was in search of someone to pass the torch to at La Provence, Besh took over the reigns and revived its farm-to-fork history by growing vegetables and raising livestock on the grounds, while continuing the tradition of rustic French cuisine in a country house setting. Similarly, at The American Sector, Besh honors the greatest generation by serving World War II era food using contemporary ingredients and techniques.

And if three is good, four must be better. New Orleans has always had its own distinctive Creole-Italian cuisine, known for smooth, sweet red sauces and an unconventional bordelaise comprised of olive oil and garlic. But with the opening of Domenica, Chef John Besh and Alon Shaya ushered in a new era of Italian dining in the city. House cured salumi and wood-fired pizzas share menu space along with exquisitely made pastas, with no "red gravy" to be found.

#4: Sucre - Tariq Hanna, chef of Sucre, said it better than we ever could. When asked about why people like sweets he responded, "You only eat sweets for two reasons: because you are seeking comfort or soothing guilt."

No matter where you were when Katrina hit, or how you have lived your life since then, those descriptions fit. When Sucre opened it set off an only in New Orleans brawl between supporters of Sucre and supporters of La Divina Gelateria. The Jets and Sharks, Bloods and Crypts, and Hatields and McCoys look like catfights compared to the Blue Bloods and Hipsters.

Sucre has distinguished itself in our eyes. There are airy, pastel colored macaroons, petit fours with layers of raspberry, chocolate, and more chocolate, milkshakes spiked with Bailey's, espressos, truffles with sea salt, and of course cakes resembling whichever team the Saints are destroying that week.

Joel Dondis always had a sweet tooth. But it was while living and working in Germany, he first decided to one day own a pastry shop. He found going to the bakery down the street provided relief from long hours and low pay as a cook. Dondis and Hanna teamed up to open Sucre in April of 2007. Since then the childhood inspired, sweet shop on Magazine has expanded to include a pastry factory near Broadmoor, where the cakes, truffles, ice creams, and baked goods are made by a dedicated staff. A staff that includes many graduates of the Culinary Institute of America. The word is out among the nation's up and coming pastry chefs. If you want to be somebody, you need to work at Sucre.

Soon a location will open in Lakeside Mall with an espresso machine called the Slayer. "This is going to revolutionize the coffee drinking experience in New Orleans," Dondis explains. "You will be able to choose your blend, grind size, water temperature, pressure, all of it."

To steal from Rick Pitino, "McKenzie's isn't walking through that door."

But that's OK. We got Sucre now.

#3: St. James Cheese Co. - "People said we were insane to open a cheese shop in New Orleans," Danielle Sutton says. "We are glad to prove them wrong."

Prior to Katrina, Richard Sutton worked as a cheesemonger in London. He and his wife, Tulane alums (we hear it is a college), returned to New Orleans with the idea to open a quiet, little cheese shop uptown. When they opened in November of 2006, the plan was to only have one or two sandwiches and to build a small niche as a supplier of fine cheeses. That plan soon changed once the public got a taste of their sandwich creations.

In winter crowds clamor for the raclette and croque monsieur. And last summer, the removal of the BLT with Serrano ham replacing bacon caused an uproar. "We had customers call and ask if the BLT was on the menu. When we would say no, they would hang up on us," Danielle recounts.

But still, the staff at St. James focuses on delivering the best cheeses and charcuterie from around the world. To witness, walk in to St. James on a Thursday around noon. The line will snake from the register down the display cases filled with people drooling over the selections. Richard, or one of his able staffmembers, will come over to and ask you what you want. "What is new," you ask.

Their eyes light up like a kid on Easter Sunday who spies a basket of candy on the mantle. "Have you tried the new aged gouda? Or the Ste. Marcelin? A delicious Triple Creme is in, layered with truffles, try it. What about this blue from Humboldt?"

And off they go dispensing samples of cheese, pates, and cured meats, while taking an order for a Mozzarella sandwich, and uncorking a bottle of rose. Recently, St. James added an online presence via a partnership with, the high-end, luxury online shopping center (backed by First Street resident Julia Reed). Previously they only accepted phone orders for out of town shipments. Which is a great gift to give a sister, should you have one living in say DC or New York.

St. James is also a great spot for dinner. Let us explain. You know those Fridays, when there is no food in the house and you don't really feel like going out to dinner? Swing by St. James, pick out three or four cheese, a pate, some slices of Jamon Serrano (or Iberico if you got that cash money), and a baguette. Take it home and lay it out on the biggest cutting board you have. Open a bottle of wine, put your feet up, and graze the night away.

With Andy Scurlock manning the charcuterie and turning out impressive truffle-studded pates and English meat pies, the future of St. James is bright. But it is the last four years that are special for Richard and Danielle. As Danielle explains, "We love the feeling that we have become a neighborhood spot in a city of great neighborhood spots. Our customers have become our friends, they go to Italy or France and bring us back treats. That really means a lot to us."

When the Sutton's came to New Orleans, they did not know what to expect but what they found has warmed their hearts. "New Orleans has been so supportive and welcoming to us. Even dealing with City Hall was enjoyable," Danielle says.

If that isn't a sign, New Orleans is back. We don't know what is.

#2: Cochon/Cochon Butcher - Chef Donald Link said it best during his segment on No Reservations: "You respect somebody for staying here. Staying here after the storm and raising your family here is making a statement."

Not only did Chef Link stay in New Orleans to raise his family, he and partner Stephen Stryjewski also moved forward with their plans to open Cochon, the porcine mecca on Tchoupitoulas Street. Beside introducing New Orleanians to the wonders of rustic Acadiana cooking, the media frenzy surrounding Cochon sent an important message to the rest of the nation: New Orleans and its food culture still matter and are worth saving. While some members of the press were kicking us while we were down, restaurateurs like Link were too busy raising the city up to even bother with the naysayers.

But all of the press and accolades were no reason for Link to rest on his laurels. In early 2009 the Link Restaurant Group launched Cochon Butcher, the forerunner of the salumi movement that has swept both the local and national dining scenes. Many people don't realize that before ABC Restaurant in NYC began curing its speck in house, the coonasses of Cajun country had about a 250 year head start on them. Butcher has brought those time tasted crafts to the Big Easy, which in turn launched this artisan movement onto the national level.

#1: La Boca - The worst kept secret in New Orleans is that it is a wonderful place to get a steak. For years Ruth Fertel's halfway eponymous restaurants showed the world how to cook and serve a steak. Ruth's Chris Corporate Office left the city with the flood waters, pissing a lot of people off. Into this vacuum stepped La Boca, which has established itself as the city's best steakhouse.

Nick Bazan and Adolfo Garcia came up with the idea of La Boca prior to Katrina. Originally they wanted a 150 seat restaurant devoted to all things Argentinian meat. But the federal flood caused them to change their plans. Luckily, Taqueria Corona never returned and they got a good deal on a 47 seat restaurant. They also had to focus the menu to what ingredients they could get reliably day in and day out. As chef/partner Jared Ralls puts it, "Adolfo and I always talk about keeping dishes simple and singularly focused. By lessening the stuff on the plate, we can increase our chances for success."

La Boca opened on June 1, 2006, which as you are well aware is the first day of hurricane season. "It was a way of saying 'Screw it, we aren't going anywhere.' We had faith in New Orleans, faith it would come back, faith people would get what we were trying to do from a culinary standpoint," Ralls recounts.

It took about two years for the restaurant to really catch on with both locals and tourists. "Business was always good, but then all of a sudden at the beginning of 2008, we just exploded," Ralls says. The success has not stopped La Boca from doing a Service Industry Night every Thursday, when you can spy some of the city's best chefs digging into steaks and slugging red wine long after the customers have gone home.

La Boca has all the classic grill marks of a steakhouse, with subtle nods to more contemporary dining. The interior of La Boca is like eating inside a large brick fireplace, with red masonry, wood timbers, and a warm glow from the kitchen. In other steakhouses the walls are lined with pictures of sports stars from year's past shaking hands with the owner. Here, are Boca Junior soccer jerseys and paraphernalia from Argentina.

Rather than beat you over the head with bottles you can't afford, the wine list at La Boca offers an all Argentine selection of toned, lean whites and muscular, lusty reds. Affordability is the main link. Hell, there even is a surly maitre d', albeit one wearing a Marilyn Monroe tie, Scarface suspenders, and saddle oxfords.

The vibe of La Boca has nothing on the food. Gooey provoleta smeared over those rolls and lacquered with chimichurri make the grilled cheese seem juvenile. The plump, tender sweetbreads, grilled whole and served with just a squeeze of lemon, have no equal in the city. The gnocchi is like eating a potato that just made love to butter and cream. Even the heart of palm salad makes a compelling argument to eat more veggies.

Then we come to the main event, the steaks. Sourced from places with cool names like Snake River and Painted Hills, this is not the place to order a filet (although the bone-in job is pretty good). Go with the hanger, the skirt, the skirt with skin, or the flank. All of the steaks, save the bottom sirloin flap, get only a sprinkling of salt and pepper before hitting the grill. This absence of fussing around means you taste the beef in all of it's glory. The three chimichurris are the colors on your palette wheel. Paint as you will.

Don't forget an order of the fries, or the mashed potatoes, or the corn pudding or the asparagus. Go ahead and linger for a while. If it is a nice March or October evening, the windows to Fulton St. will be open wide. Sit, swirl, and sip that Malbec. It should be loosening up about now, as should your mood. Stick around long enough and the Red Eye will open. Go ahead and go, we won't judge. Lord knows we've all been there once before and soon enough, will be again.

We chose La Boca as our favorite Post Katrina addition to the New Orleans food scene for a few reasons. First, we love steak and feel it is the best steakhouse in the city. Secondly, although La Boca is a few years old, there is still a feeling of excitement every time we go. One of us will go and text the other, "Heading to La Boca." Instantly a wave of jealousy spreads over the other Blackened Out twin.

Third, the Warehouse District has become the post-Katrina center of dining in the city. The sheer volume of excellent restaurants within a 6 block walk keeps each operator on top of their game. And in this area, there is no better place we like to eat than La Boca.

Finally, we all lost nouns in Katrina - places, things, and people. Whatever it is Katrina took from you, what you really lost was the memory of the noun. Your kids walking down the stairs on Christmas morning, the picture of you and your cousin in Destin, or the restaurant where your husband proposed. Restaurants in New Orleans have always been more than places to get a meal. They are links to the past. Memory place card holders which evoke not only good food but also great times. Maybe it was eating at Ruth's after either your First Communion or high school graduation. Maybe you never went but always wanted to go to Christian's. Restaurants matter here almost as much as the World Champion Saints.

But what Katrina didn't take was our ability to dine out. To eat well with friends or perfect strangers. To create memories which will live on past the latest fad in cooking or the bonds of any friendship. La Boca has become our favorite new place to create lasting memories. The restaurant has accomplished this by borrowing from the past while being truly original. By extension, La Boca feels like it has always been a part of New Orleans. For that, it gets our nod as the best addition to the New Orleans food scene Post-Katrina. Here's wishing it stays a treasure of New Orleans forever.


Celeste said...

Cupcakes with glitter? Feh.

$1.25 said...

La Boca is definitely a favorite of ours. One of the most enjoyable experiences is taking someone there for the first time, of course that is getting harder and harder to do these days.

Just ate at Luke on Friday following the Saints game and had a wonderful experience. Incidentally, I've been tracking the best sazeracs in the city and the one I had on Friday pushed them right to the top of the list.

Great job closing out the list and the Katrina weekend.

Lorin Gaudin said...

nice job guys!! Love your list and moving forward spirit.

Wang said...

Mmmmmmm... charcuterie....

SLS said...

Extremely well written. Couldn't agree more with your top pick.

Great series alltogether, gave me a few places I need to try!

Cathy said...

I ate at Lukes for the first time on Good Friday and just loved it. The place immediately brought Kolbs to mind. My dad managed Kolbs briefly in the late 1960s; our family lived upon the 3rd floor -- best place in the world to view Mardi Gras parades. I still have one of their old menus (with 1968 prices!). It's a little storm-damaged but still readable.