Old Metairie: 2037 Metairie Road.
Chef Daniel Bonnot has been absent from the full-time New Orleans restaurant scene long enough that the younger fine-diners probably have not heard of him. But in the annals of New Orleans dining during the past fifty years, he plays an influential and interesting role.
Daniel (emphasis on the “-el,” French style) was brought to New Orleans in 1970 to create the kitchen and menu for the new Louis XVI French Restaurant. It would prove to be the first successful real French restaurant here, a fact which has always needed a little explaining. Until that time, New Orleans was full of Creole restaurants claiming to be French. (By writing their menus in French, among other gambits.) But they weren’t much like the restaurants actually in France.
Louis XVI (which still exists, in a kind of private-banquet limbo) was quite French, notably in the service department. Working with Louis XVI’s owner Mark Smith, Daniel went on to create two other big-deal French restaurants–L’Escale and Savoir-Faire. The latter introduced Susan Spicer to New Orleans diners. She was one of Daniel’s discoveries.
Daniel went out on his own in 1986 to open the striking, newsmaking Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel. The name was no affectation. It really was the reconstruction of a restaurant that had been in the real Eiffel Tower. (Here’s the whole long story of that place.)
The Eiffel Tower restaurant was a brilliant but undercapitalized disaster. It closed after a few years, leaving Daniel more or less broke. But his wife had a good job and they had young kids here. And when he finally pulled his wherewithal together, he made his memorable comeback.
Chez Daniel was a French bistro in Old Metairie, an affluent part of town with few restaurants. To those who knew the neighborhood, it seemed an unlikely spot. Nothing was done to disguise the fact that the restaurant moved right into the shabby old Cuban Liquor Store. The floors were painted concrete, the old doors were hard to open, a marquee still displayed the fading Cuban logo, and the kitchen stored its wine and foodstuffs in an old beer cooler that was quite visible in the open kitchen.
Ameliorating the starkness were some delightful touches. A mural covering the entire left wall was a painting on Masonite of a Belle Epoque French scene. You were supposed to be able to recognize certain New Orleans characters in it. The tables were small but well-dressed–better than most bistros now. Live music played many nights. It all added up to a French version of the treasured New Orleans sleazy chicness. And a lot of fun.
In the 1980s, if you called a restaurant French, you meant not only that the cooking followed the route established by Escoffier, but also that it was dressy and expensive. Even Crozier’s–which always was a bistro–was perceived as a classy place to dine. Daniel proved that you could blow away all the pretentiousness and still serve great food. And what you ate at Chez Daniel, at very modest prices, was very good indeed.
The textbook French bistro meals would start off with a slab of cold, thick-textured duck pate, followed by onion soup au gratin, then steak au poivre, all accompanied by anonymous house wine by the glass or carafe. You could get all that at Chez Daniel
The chef was too talented to stop there, and he began adding less familiar dishes that would quickly catch on. Crunchy vegetables and roots, shredded up and tossed with a French (white) remoulade). Baked oysters Bearn with leeks, prosciutto, and bearnaise. Mussels Normande, steamed with the usual aromatic vegetables, plus wine and cream. Smoked tuna, replacing the smoked salmon Daniel had served so much of at Louis XVI.
Long before anyone else did, Daniel began making his own charcuterie and sausages. Some of this found its way into the choucroute garni, the Alsatian classic that somehow had never caught on before in New Orleans. Shrimp Madelyn (named for Daniel’s New Orleans wife) came in a cream sauce flavored with Cognac and paprika
And a great roasted chicken with rosemary and green peppercorns. Marinated lamb chops bearnaise sauce.
Veal sweetbreads, like the ones Susan Spicer became famous for (Daniel taught her), with browned butter and capers.
It all went on until Daniel started getting gigs doing cooking tours in France. He sold the place to Rosita Skias, who opened the Mediterranean-style Odyssey Grill. It didn’t make it. Nor did Vaqueros, a Santa Fe-style eatery. However, each new tenant renovated the space, and by the time the current operator appeared, it was actually atmospheric.
It is almost too appropriate that Chateau du Lac is in the old Chez Daniel space. The restaurants have the same spirit. Now and then Daniel comes to town and co-chefs a dinner with his fellow French chef Jacques Seleun. And the place fills up with people who don’t ever want to forget those few pleasant years of Chez Daniel. A lot of people still say Daniel was the best French chef New Orleans ever had.