The Year In Dining.

I hated writing this column. It’s about the most boring year for New Orleans diners that I remember.

This has been a year of few major openings (but no major closings) and few major improvements. The restaurant business has had to struggle so hard to revive itself that it’s not surprising that it spent most of the year marking time and catching its breath.

That thought didn’t well up until I began to look for a restaurant to call the best new restaurant of the year. Nothing jumped out of my mind. I kept thinking. Still nothing. So I decided to ditch that old concept and invent special awards for this year only.

Was the best new restaurant MiLa, the Rushing couple’s slick, innovative, polished new restaurant in the CBD? I rated it five stars in an earlier column this year. But it opened in 2007. So it’s the Best New Restaurant of Last Year. (Which is different from Best New Restaurant of 2007. That was Bistro Daisy.)

Patois? Another good one, a delicious bistro a block from Clancy’s, successor to the just-okay Nardo’s, with a chef who did good things at the closed Bank Café in the Marigny. But that opened even earlier in 2007 than MiLa did. It’s the Best Almost-New Restaurant of 2008.

Pellicano Ristorante did open this year, in Kenner. And it is very good–four stars’ worth. But it’s not well known, hard to find, and lightly attended. The best thing to happen there lately is that the management finally put up a sign big enough that you don’t drive right past the place as you search for it. By the way, despite the name, it’s not Italian, but contemporary Creole. Best Unheralded New Restaurant of the Year.

O’Brien’s Grille? The Gretna steakhouse was a welcome addition to the sparse population of white-tablecloth restaurants on the West Bank. Good steaks, stark exterior, cool interior. Good steaks. Good service. Opened on St. Patrick’s Day this year. Best New Limited Menu of the 2008.

A good potential candidate for the Unqualified Best New Restaurant of the Year would be Rambla, the new Spanish and Basque restaurant in the CBD. It was opened by Ken Lacour and Kim Kringlie, the owners of Dakota and Cuvee, and Bob Iacovone, the chef at Cuvee. But it’s only been open a few months, not long enough for me to recommend it, or to go there myself. The few reports have been good, however. It’s in the International House Hotel on Camp at Gravier, where the Lemon Grass Cafe was.

As I continued cogitating on this, a few other newsmaking premieres came to mind. But they all involved rebirths. The big story of the year was the return of Charlie’s Steak House, a minor player on the scene for seventy years. Because of the current imperative that all real New Orleans restaurants be funky, it has been a subject of intense interest since the hurricane shut it down. Now it’s back, same old place. Best Reincarnation of the Year.

There were two more unexpected, welcome returns from the dead this year. Coincidentally, they’re less than a block apart: Maximo’s, which has a new owner but the same chef, and Café Sbisa, bought by Glen Hogh, the owner of Vega Tapas Café. They jointly win the Best Reborn Neighbors of 2008.

Early in the year, Chateau Du Lac moved from its tiny, unattractive space in Kenner to a much more appealing bistro in Metairie Road. That made it twice the restaurant it was, qualifying it for Best Expanded Restaurant of the Year.

Kevin Vizard, a chef whose work I’ve always enjoyed, did the opposite. He left a rent increase on his post-K St. Charles Avenue (Best New Restaurant of 2006!) to opened a smaller, tighter new Vizard’s on Magazine Street this year. The best news here is that he didn’t just close and disappear for a couple of years, as he has been known to do in the past. Best Shrunken Restaurant of the Year.

After struggling to establish his own cuisine at Peristyle, Chef Tom Wolfe–who bought the restaurant right before Katrina–gave up that fight and started another one. He renamed the place Wolfe’s (no big deal; it’s had at least three other names in its past) and reopened with a new menu that was supposed to be more in a Creole vein. But the changes have been subtle; the menu reads much like the Peristyle version, to me. Best Side-Stepping Restaurant of the Year.

The year began on a very optimistic note at La Provence, with Chef Rene Bajeux–probably the most gifted French chef in town then. He was in the kitchen cooking and in the barnyard raising pigs and chickens, saying it was great to be a chef again. Then he was gone. Randy Lewis, who we remember from Indigo a few years ago, came in as not only chef but partner with John Besh. His changes were deeper than we expected, winning the Best Hard To Dope Out Restaurant of 2008.

After a long foreplay, Chef Scott Boswell of Stella! finally reopened Stanley!–his cool post-Katrina grill and soda fountain–in the Lower Pontalba at year’s end. He wins Best New Restaurant of Last Year, Next Year.

While all this was going on, the increase in size of the New Orleans restaurant community continued. On the first day of 2008 year, 884 real restaurants were open in the New Orleans area. Two weeks before year’s end, the number is 980. We had 809 before Katrina. To put this in perspective, almost all other parts of the country saw their restaurant populations dwindle. New York and Los Angeles have seen significant drops. We are not doing badly.

But I’m hoping somebody wakes us up in 2009.

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