Abita Springs: 21516 La. 36.
I can tell you because I live there: Not much happens in Abita Springs. Rapid growth in the surrounding Mandeville-Covington area (where it seems that another pine tree gets cut down every five minutes) hasn’t changed the sleepy hamlet much. The biggest development in recent years was replacement of the town’s only traffic signal by a roundabout.
On the other hand, here is the place where the culinary career of one chef took the whole New Orleans restaurant world in a new direction.
In the late 1990s, restaurateur and former manager of the Fair Grounds Vicky Bayley made an abrupt career change. Not long after she closed Mike’s On The Avenue in the New Orleans CBD, she become a mother for the second and third times, and devoted herself to that world. She and her husband lived near Abita, where was an old hotel that seemed to cry to become a bed-and-breakfast.
Vicky renovated the place beautifully, renamed it Artesia, and brought in as chef a guy who had been cooking at La Provence in Lacombe. He also had put in a couple of years at the Windsor Court, as well as in a few grand restaurants in France.
His name was John Besh.
Fast forward to today. John Besh announced last week (March 7, 2016) that he will add a new unit to his business that will develop high-end hotel restaurant properties wherever it can find them. The press release specified a three-eatery operation in Nashville. Currently in the works are four restaurants in the newly refurbished Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue.
That, on top of eight restaurants up and running around town, plus a few in other cities. Only the Brennan family can claim to have a larger restaurant collection in New Orleans.
Back in our time machine, we see Vicky Bayley’s Artesia pulling in customers not only from Covington and Mandeville, but from the South Shore, Mississippi, and even Baton Rouge. (But not much from Abita Springs, other than myself. Baton Rouge is not a fine-dining place.)
Although Artesia was only a couple of years old, it appeared to merge into the fabric of the town. Its premises are the old Long Branch Inn, which was populated 100 years ago with Orleanians looking for an escape from the summertime mosquito-borne plague.
Artesia was as successful as it could be. Vicky went ahead with plans to renovate Artesia’s upstairs and double the number of tables. And a few outbuildings were being set up as bed-and-breakfast operation.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, John Besh was polishing, ever polishing. His menu leaned deliciously toward country French cooking.
Example: a three-way lamb dish, consisting of an attractive grilled domestic (the best kind) lamb rib chop, a good bit (probably all, in fact) of a lamb tenderloin, and some braised lamb shoulder. The latter was cooked for hours, until it fell apart into shreds.
I overheard someone complain that there should have been another chop instead of “all that stuff.” I thought about going over there and straightening the guy out. This is the kind of food we go to France (or your mama’s house, if she can cook) to savor, but that restaurants rarely give us. It melted in the mouth, carrying with it an intense natural sauce abetted with unidentifiable (but who cared?) savory herbs. Yum. The cheap stuff was the best stuff in this case.
Nor was this the French food you and I were eating in those days. In a natural style that lives off the land, a lot of what Besh cooked is grown nearby–just as it would be in a similar restaurant in the French countryside.
Artesia’s food was beautiful. My wife–who has always said John Besh’s food was “a little too gourmet for me”–nevertheless was wowed by the presentations and loved the place. The menu changed often, but some specialties are well established. “Alain Assaud’s soup de poisson” was a wonderful dish Besh learned from that French master chef.
We soon began to see dishes that would soon grace the menu at Besh’s own first restaurant, August. Jumbo lump crabmeat with truffles and the thinnest, airiest gnocchi imaginable would become August’s first signature dish. The three-way foie gras plate, a salad centered on a puck of goat cheese, breaded and pan-sauteed, then covered with frondy fresh greens and lavender-honey vinaigrette. Pretty complicated for a salad, but why not?
Finally, here was “poulet grand mere,” a fixture in most of Besh’s restaurants even now. A roast chicken done in the French style, it seems so simple one wonder why only French-inspired chefs seem to get it right.
Then John Besh got an offer from investor August Robin to underwrite John’s own restaurant. A few years later. Besh bought Robin out. And now, if you want to know how many restaurants John Besh’s company owns, be sure to get a current count from the last hour or two.
None of them, unfortunately, are Artesia. Which went on, without the pizzazz of the Besh years. The duo that would later open the excellent Del Porto in Covington ran the place for awhile. Artesia would run out of gas, and the business was sold to Ken Lacour at Dakota, but that proved to be short-term, too. The place is just sitting there, waiting for something to happen in Abita Springs.