The Year In Dining

At the beginning of the year, the biggest restaurant news was that Ralph Brennan and Chef Gerard Maras would be opening a new restaurant in the beautiful premises across from City Park where the Tavern on the Park used to be.

Delayed by a host of unexpected construction problems, Ralph’s on the Park (which will not be winning the New Restaurant Name of the Year prize) barely got the doors opened for private parties a couple of weeks ago, and for a soft opening of the main dining room. Its story will belong to 2004.

Otherwise, it was another year of growth for the local restaurant business, at least in terms of number of restaurants. While most other major American restaurant cities had a net loss of restaurants in the past few years, New Orleans’s population of eateries never stopped increasing.

Meanwhile, only a few major restaurants have closed in recent times. And although most restaurateurs say that business isn’t what it was in the booming late 1990s, they all admit that it’s about as it good as it was just before then. The only consistent complaint is that it was a very slow summer, and that the busy season started later than usual.

So much for the business angle. Here is my annual list of the best culinary developments this year. It’s a combination of most-improved restaurants with those new places that have their act fully together.

TEN GREATEST IMPROVEMENTS TO THE DINING SCENE, 2003

1. Tommy’s. Tommy Andrade, who was part of the still-excellent Irene’s since that great Italian trattoria opened 20 years ago, left with some of the staff to open his own place. In an interestingly-renovated Warehouse District-space that formerly housed the Red Bike, Andrade is serving essentially the same menu and style as at Irene’s. Which is welcome, so tough is it to get a table at the old place. But the new one is usually just as full. (746 Tchoupitoulas, 529-2453.)

2. Annadele’s Plantation. Pat Gallagher has been trying to re-open this grand old Covington mansion (parts date back to 1858) for nearly five years. He finally succeeded this year. The premises and grounds are magnificent, and while the food isn’t yet at the levels it was during the peak years at the old Gallagher’s, Annadele’s is delicious. It’s also a bed and breakfast. (71495 Chestnut, Covington; 985-809-7669.)

3. Cuvee. When Chef Bingo Starr left Cuvee to open La Cote Brasserie (from which he recently left, which is why that restaurant isn’t on this list), there was concern that Cuvee would take a dip. In fact, it got better, with the kitchen under the hand of former sous chef Bob Iacovone. The food is adventuresome without leaving the known taste universe. A restructuring of the tasting menus makes the wine aspect of Cuvee even better than before. (322 Magazine, 587-9001.)

4. Cypress. The long-time chef at Vincent’s and his father built this place with their own hands and opened a pleasant, consistent Creole cafe. The food is occasionally adventuresome and polished to the level of restaurants half again this price. The rest is familiar and good. (4426 Transcontinental, 885-6885.)

5. Mango House. In the cottage that formerly housed Ninja, this is a charming little cafe serving the food of the Caribbean. Since that style of Creole cooking has so much in common with our own, it’s nice to have these dishes available. Most of them will seem familiar, but different. (8115 Jeannette, 862-5848.)

6. Chateaubriand Steakhouse. It opened two years ago, and immediately set out to battle the construction (and frequent blocking) of Carrollton Avenue right outside. The steakhouse concept they started with evolved agreeably into a better-rounded menu, with more classic French food from the hand of Chefs Gerard Crozier and Patrick Perie, the best two-man team of French chefs in town. (310 N. Carrollton Ave., 207-0016.)

7. Indigo. After initial flights with far-out, incomprehensibly new-wave menus, Indigo pulled in Chef Kevin Vizard. He turned the style around, and made this Bayou Road antique-style cafe fantastic. Then, as he has in the past, he left after a few months. The new chef kept Vizard’s menu, more or less, and Indigo is much better now than it was a year ago. (2285 Bayou Road, 947-0123. )

8. Christian’s. After a few years with little direction in the kitchen, the restaurant in the church now has the services of Michel Fouqueteau, a French chef who’s spent the last 20 years in New Orleans. He was the perfect person to perk up Christian’s unique French-Creole style. (3835 Iberville, 482-4924.)

9. Zea. The Taste Buds opened their third local location in Kenner this year, and it’s a handsome enough space to play host to a much more expensive restaurant. With a few exceptions (fish is the most glaring), Zea has avoided most of the pitfalls of chain restaurants, and is a particularly fine place to eat rotisserie chicken. (Esplanade Mall, 1401 W Esplanade Ave., 468-7733.)

10. Ye Olde College Inn. After too many decades of changelessness, the College Inn has a slightly new look and a much-refreshed menu. The owners have a taste for nostalgic New Orleans funkiness, and they’re leaving that character alone. (3016 S. Carrollton Ave, 866-3683.)

Some openings are still not solid. The Besh Steakhouse in Harrah’s Casino has a brilliant chef serving expensive steaks in the noisy surroundings of a casino. The chef change at La Cote Brasserie makes that a wild card, although the presence of owner Chef Rene Bajeaux keeps it from going very sour.

It was a busy year in West St. Tammany Parish. Lots of new openings, and one major re-opening: Alex Patout’s, back again after a fire. Among the new places are Anna Lisa’s (daughter of Sal & Judy’s, literally, in Madisonville), the third outlet of New Orleans Food & Spirits (Covington), and the Thai Chili, the latest in a series of restaurants in a handsome but ill-starred location in front of the Winn Dixie in Mandeville. All are good enough to draw people away from the chains.

Finally, the closings. The most significant was the demise of Charley G’s. Although Victor’s at the Ritz-Carlton is still there, its original gourmet concept is gone without a trace. It’s now an ordinary hotel restaurant with an emphasis on steaks. And we ate our last meals at Rico’s Bucktown, Belle Forche, Petra, and Johnny Ryan’s. The latter both opened and closed in 2003.

We’ll eat even better next year!

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