The Year In Dining

The year in dining started out with a bloated, big-time restaurant opening. The Fashion Cafe, whose glamor-model proprietors had a big success in New York, opened its second location with a party that competed with Mardi Gras. A few locals went, and. . . well, have you heard a word about the place lately?

Fortunately, 1996 improved consistently after that for everyone interested in the business of dining out in New Orleans. Most restaurateurs have enjoyed improvements in volume, profitability, and creativity. That good news was both shared in and instigated by diners, who have had a lot to smile about too.

Most good years on the restaurant scene are marked by many new restaurant openings, but there was at most an average number of those in 1996. The most flagrant opener of new places was Kevin Graham. The former chef of the Windsor Court extended the empire of restaurants that he manages to four, as he opened Graham’s Cafe Creole and the Emerald Room and took over Randoph’s. The success of those, as well as of his own Graham’s, shows that the interest in pricey, eclectic dining remains fairly strong among diners.

Graham wasn’t the only one expanding his operations beyond one location. There’s been a boomlet of second locations of established restaurants: Frankie’s Cafe, Sclafani’s, and the Crescent City Brewhouse all copied their menus and styles onto second locations. Meanwhile, the city’s most famous chef–Emeril Lagasse, who already has two restaurants here–hit with a new place in Las Vegas, and he’s preparing number four for the Orlando area in 1997. The second locations have not all been successful; chef Andrea Apuzzo’s second restaurant, Anacapri, closed as the year began.

The divide-and-multiply effect may be only beginning, though. Rumors are surfacing of the opening of second locations of three major restaurants. Ralph Brennan of Mr. B’s and Bacco is getting ready to open a seafood house in the old D.H. Holmes restaurant location on Bourbon Street. Mike Fennelly and Vicky Bayley of Mike’s on the Avenue are readying a new restaurant in Abita Springs.

Mike’s new place, significantly, will not feature the wildly adventuresome food of the original restaurant. In that, he’s right with the trends–as usual. As are others. Chef Daniel Bonnot, the creator of the original Louis XVI and the proprietor of today’s Chez Daniel, opened a new bistro called Bizou in the nascent restaurant row on St. Charles near Girod. The place started out with a moderately far-out menu blending various Asian cooking styles with local ingredients. It succeeded in getting not much more than the overflow from Mike’s on the Avenue, which is famous for those kind of culinary shenanigans. So in mid-year, Bonnot changed Bizou’s menu to a much more traditional (if still very innovative) French-Creole taste. It looks like it may have helped business; at the very least, the food is better now.

That was not an isolated case. Most of the major new restaurants this year opened with menus heavy with recognizable, classic dishes. A good example of this is the new Plain Dealing, operated by chefs Charlie Campo and Chris Canan. It’s in an old building that benefits from the heavy foot traffic on ever-improving Decatur Street, and its menu reads like something out of the early Eighties. They even blacken a thing or two, and they’re not the only ones: the technique, which for the past decade has been at best a cliche, seems to be making a comeback.

One thing very noticeable about the food at Bizou and Plain Dealing is that both restaurants serve a great deal of it. We’ve seen a lot of that this year. Lots of restaurants are making a point of serving tremendous quantities of food. I noted that trend in last year’s summing-up column, and it seems to have picked up steam in 1996. This is not merely the strategy of restaurants who want to make up for the mediocre quality of their grub by giving the deluded more of it, but a practice engaged in by some restaurants whose kitchens use very fine raw materials. Some other notable proponents include the G&E Courtyard Grill, Nola, Cafe Rue Bourbon, Frankie’s Cafe, and the Italian Grill.

The serving of titanic portions seems at odds with what we’re reading in food magazines about the inevitability of low-fat, light food. That’s not the only way in which reality deviates from the projections. The tide of red meat as a metier for chefs’ creativity has been rising for years, and did so ever fast in the past year. The particular meat which has seen an astonishing increase in popularity is venison. Ten years ago, you ran into venison on local menus in only the most expensive, gourmet-oriented places, and then only at very high prices. Now restaurants all over are featuring the meat of various species of deer on their menus, and some of them verge on the neighborhood-restaurant category. The dishes being produced have also come down in price to about that of a comparable steak dish.

Restaurateurs must be relieved that we’re eating more venison, as well as more steak, lamb, and pork. One of their most vexatious problems in the past year was getting enough fish–especially if they wanted Louisiana fish to dominate their menus. The gill-net law (which, I’m not going to let you forget, has many other restrictions on commercial fishing besides the ban on the nets) kicked into medium gear this year, and it brought about a long stretch of months during which you found very little Louisiana fish on menus. Things are not too bad right now, but next year, when the full force of the law hits, restaurants will be hard-pressed to find any local fish, and what they find–even secondary species like sheepshead–will be much more expensive. Oh, well–anything to make it easier for sport fishermen quickly to catch their limits without having to make them. . .well, you know, work at it.

There’s one more striking trend I noticed in the past year’s dining. Menu prices, after remaining very stable for almost a decade, are moving upward faster than I’ve seen them do in a long time. An index I keep of 40 classic dishes around town shows an eleven percent increase for the year. Much of this was due to the way some very popular restaurants have taken advantage of their full dining rooms. (Rarely unfairly, I hasten to add.) For example, the table d’hote dinner specials at Commander’s Palace, which last year ran around $32, are now pushing $40 at the high end–although that’s still a great deal, given the excellence of the restaurant.

Ahead of us is a happy new year, I think. We should see a good deal of restaurant expansion, particularly in the suburbs and most particularly on the North Shore. While we probably won’t see any more Fashion Cafe-type places, we may be invaded by more Houston’s-variety restaurants.

Meanwhile the quality of food, which to my palate improved a good bit during 1996, should continue to offer us many happy surprises. So, here’s a toast to 1997!

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