Dozen Most Underrated Restaurants
Rated by whom? That’s a problem. Very few real critics are out there giving ratings of New Orleans restaurants. Most ratings now come from readers, each of whom have a different system, so that three stars can mean anything from very good to terrible.
So maybe we’d better rename this endeavor The Dozen Most Under-Appreciated Restaurants. The meaning is clear. These are the eateries whose cooking, service, wine and other indexes of excellence are much better than their reputations or volume might imply.
The word that seems most to apply here is prejudice. Not the racial kind, of course, but the set of preferences each one of us has. For example, I have a thing against restaurants without tablecloths. I admit that the lack has no real bearing on the goodness of the food, but I must adjust my reviews and ratings to account for the effect of a missing or present tablecloth.
Here are some of the elements that engender negative prejudices against the restaurants that have them. All are meaningless as regards how good the dining actually is.
Spanish food (not Mexican! That’s okay)
Presence of many older customers
Lack of very convenient parking
French Quarter location
Cold, hard butter
Longevity of the restaurant
Unpronounceable or mysterious name
Perception of exclusivity
Presence of many out-of-towners
Metairie Road location
There’s only one good side to this effect, and it only benefits the customers. You can get a seat in an underrated restaurant easier than in one of the same quality that is not subject to prejudices. Of course, it’s not a good thing for the restaurateurs involved.
One more generality. What causes a restaurant to be under- or overrated varies tremendously from one diner to another. I love Spanish food. And I’m an older person myself.
1. Tomas Bistro. Warehouse District & Center City: 755 Tchoupitoulas. 504-527-0942. There’s an off-chance that the fine dining category of New Orleans restaurants–which has fallen on hard times across America in recent years–may well be on the verge of a renaissance. I put forth Tomas Bistro as a case in point. The cooking is very hip–you will find many good dishes you never imagined before. But one need not dress to the nines, and the kitchen is so ambitious in its presentations that the whole package is quite a thrill in the eating. Tommy Andrade runs this place much differently than the way he does Tommy’s across the street. Even though it’s only a few years old, it seems like a wonderful relic from another time.
2. Atchafalaya. Uptown 2: Washington To Napoleon: 901 Louisiana Ave. 504-891-9626. “New Orleans’s Only Five-A Restaurant” (as the owners call it) is far from underrated by its regulars, who keep the place full nightly. But those who haven’t tried it will find the eating far better than the premises might suggest. But these are times when a beat-up old place is the preferred dining venue for many. The explanation for the goodness is shared by Chef Christopher Lynch and owners Rachel Jaffe and Tony Tocco, who know what the local palate is all about.
3. Apolline. Uptown 3: Napoleon To Audubon: 4729 Magazine St. 504-894-8881. Operating in the decades-old tradition of the Uptown gourmet bistro, Apolline is a clever, handsome reworking of a fine old Creole cottage. Its original fireplaces rise through the middle of the main dining room like columns, with candles completing the antique effect. The food leans in the direction of the current American culinary repertoire, with incursions of Creole ingredients and pepper levels. Chef Matthew Farmer’s menu seems abbreviated, but you always find something here you’ve not tried before.
4. Marti’s. French Quarter: 1041 Dumaine. 504-522-5478. The old Marti’s was so good that it’s a shame it was forgotten for so long, while other restaurants took over the building. After two years, owner Patrick Singley (he also owns Gautreau’s) has retored the old Marti’s style, while keeping it up to date. If the old Marti’s had lived on, it would be exactly like the new Marti’s. The cooking and raw materials are decidedly local, with a scattering of Italian touches. Great oysters.
5. Redemption. Mid-City: 3835 Iberville St. 504-309-3570. Everything about the restaurant that took over where Christian’s left off (Katrina) would seem to indicate immediate and immense popularity. It didn’t happen when it became Redemption in 2010, it took two renovations and kitchen overhauls for the place ti finally click. The 100-year-old church building is beautiful, and Chef Greg Picolo (remember his long tenure at the Bistro at the Maison de Ville? I do) is cooking as well as ever in his long career.
6. Ristorante Filippo. Metairie 2: Orleans Line To Houma Blvd: 1917 Ridgelake. 504-835-4008. This is a little restaurant that has hosted many other little restaurants over the decades. All of them presented their customers with a puzzle: you can see the place from Causeway Blvd. in Metairie, but it’s hard to figure out how to get there. But enough people have solved this that it’s always busy. Chef-owner Phil Gagliano says that his food is the correct, traditional Sicilian way of cooking. His food is different from that of the many other Creole-Sicilian cooks around town. The red sauces are subtle, and the reliance on olive oil, garlic and herbs is more emphatic. The flavors are big, perhaps because the aromas are alluring. Even elementary matters like the Italian salad and veal piccata come out captivating. Not to be missed: the oysters areganata.
7. Peppermill. Metairie 2: Orleans Line To Houma Blvd: 3524 Severn Ave. 504-455-2266. For years, the Peppermill has seemed to be on the verge of a new era of popularity, like the one it enjoyed in the 1970s. It remains under-appreciated for a ridiculous reason: young diners write it off as an old-folks place. That is not true of the Creole-Italian cooking, which is not only very good but a great value. During the past year or so, the Peppermill has become even better.
8. Cafe Minh. Mid-City: 4139 Canal. 504-482-6266. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant, but in an unmistakeably New Orleans style. Owner Minh Bui–who came here after a hair-raising emigration from his homeland–began his career as a waiter at Commander’s Palace. So he knows what serious dining is about. He is also creative enough to fill his classy little restaurant with fascinating flavors.
9. Christopher’s On Carey. Slidell: 2228 Carey St. 985-641-4501. Slidell can’t seem to collect more than a few really good restaurants. That makes a lot of people give a dubious eye to the idea of eating there. Christopher’s on Carey is one of the few that could survive on the south shore. Chef-owner Christopher Case purveys a somewhat old-style menu, but it fits right into the Victorian premises. The quality of the raw materials is top-notch, especially as regards the fish. Prices are a bargain.
10. Santa Fe. Esplanade Ridge: 3201 Esplanade Ave. 504-948-0077. It’s tough for a restaurant with a vast clientele of regulars to hold onto them after new owners take over. Almost by definition, every change–even good ones–are damned as having ruined the restaurant. This relocated Santa Fe is at least as good as the Marigny original, if you ask me. One big way: much of the menu isn’t Mexican at all, giving a tremendous range to the kitchen. The sidewalk tables are the best of any New Orleans restaurants’.
11. Meauxbar. French Quarter: 942 N Rampart. 504-569-9979. There have been two restaurants called Meauxbar, different from one another in most ways except one: it never was a bar but a full-fledged restaurant with a French accent. (There is a small bar, mainly for waiting for a table.) The the current Meauxbar is really the rebirth of Ste. Marie, which originally was on Poydras Street with a Creole-French menu. The move has been good for the food here. And the location across the street from the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts is ideal.
12. Mais Arepas. Warehouse District & Center City: 1200 Carondelet St. 504-523-6247. Like a lot of restaurants with unusual themes, Mais Arepas had everybody talking when it first opened. Now that it’s evolved into a really find kitchen for Central and South American eats, most of the buzz is audible in the dining room. Everybody there is expresses admiration bite by bite. Arepas are the tortillas of Colombia, made with more or less the same cornmeal masa that also makes soft corn tortillas for Mexican tacos, but much thicker–about a quarter inch or more. They’re grilled and used to make sandwiches of almost anything you can think of, with the emphasis on grilled meats. And the menu goes on from there, deliciously.