ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
There’s no other major restaurant that has opened and closed as many times as Cafe Sbisa has. It’s as if there were an imperative in the building that forces it to make a big splash among the dining public, then to wind down over a period of years until it shuts down. After a pause, it comes back with a great new chef (or sometimes an old one), and the place gets fired up and makes a buzz all over again–usually with the same menu with which it closed. And opened again.
There’s always a good excuse for these ebbs and flows. In the current episode, the restaurant didn’t reopen after Hurricane Katrina until this past autumn. A renovation was underway for a lot of that, but eleven years leads the league in that category. It was enough for diners’ mental maps to have lost track of Cafe Sbisa. But when it finally reopened, it did so in a promising way.
WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
The neighborhood of the French Market along the 900-1200 blocks of Decatur has lately been treated to some excellent new restaurants, along with revived restaurants. All these brought some exciting new styles–not all of them culinary– to the vicinity. Cafe Sbisa, whose style has long been unique. is back again for another run with its well-established menu and its handsome, vertical dining spaces. And a very fine weekend brunch.
If there are any dishes on the latest Sbisa menu that were not here before, they got past me. It’s the classic collection of French-Creole flavor. Many of them take the tack of the namesake oyster dish. It uses the ingredients from which oysters Rockefeller is built, but the sauce is much thicker and the oysters are fried. Another trick of the kitchen brings trout Eugene to the table. On and alongside the fish are shrimp, crawfish, and crab fingers. Big, big plate, that.
Founded in the late 1800s as a raffish neighborhood cafe for the French Market area, Cafe Sbisa lay empty for years before it was recreated as a sort of with-it Galatoire’s in 1973. It was the creation of Dr. Larry Hill, a psychiatrist with a great sense of taste and many contacts in the arts community. At that time Cafe Sbisa introduced something new to New Orleans restaurant cookery in the modern age: the use of a charcoal fire for grilling fish. Things have not been the same since; it’s hard to find a restaurant worth its salt that doesn’t grill fish.
The first closure was about a decade after the opening. At least another followed some seven years later. The Napoli family kept its ownership throughout. They still own the building. But the actual restaurant operation is under the proprietorship of Chef Alfred Singleton. He had spent some time early in his career in Cafe Sbisa’s kitchen. In the fallow years, he worked with Ralph and Dickie Brennan and Desi Vega’s steak house.
The newly restored main dining room was reorganized in a way that emphasizes the bar. The famous George Dureau painting above the bar has returned, convincing that the real Cafe Sbisa was indeed back. If you find sitting at the bar for the whole meal appealing, your are invited to go for it. A private dining room in the upper floors gives a great view of the river.
FULL ONLINE MENU
DOZEN BEST DISHES
Crab cakes, citrus aioli.
Oysters Sbisa (spinach, parmesan, bacon, hollandaise, Herbsaint liqueur.
Turtle soup (an exceptionally good one).
Tomato mozzarella salad.
Trout Eugene (pan-fried trout with the usual seafood garnishes.
Courtbouillon, mussels, shrimp, crabmeat in a thickish sauce in the thrall of fish stock.
Blackened fish of the day.
Panneed veal with crabmeat and lemon caper butter.
Herb-crusted rack of lamb.
Pork loin chop with molasses sweet potatoes
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +2
- Wine & Bar
- Local Color +2
- Open Sunday lunch