By the standards of recent past years, 2004 was boring for avid local restaurant patrons. Most of the few new restaurant openings were less impressive than advertised. This despite the fact that near-record amounts of money were spent in creating or renovating the biggest deals. A number of promising new restaurants from a year or two ago closed up shop. Meanwhile, most established restaurants did little more than mark time. Which resulted in a slow drift in the direction of ordinariness.
But we did have high points. Just not enough of them. Here they are: the most interesting restaurants of 2004.
1. Peristyle. The biggest story for local diners this year was Anne Kearney’s retirement (for health reasons) from her top-rated restaurant on Rampart at Dumaine. Just as surprising was the new owner: Tom Wolfe, an Emeril’s alumnus (as was Kearney) who owns Wolfe’s in West End. The initial concern was that Wolfe would re-tool the menu in his own style. Which isn’t bad, but it is different from the old Peri-style. That, however, has not happened, and Peristyle continues to wow its fans.
2. La Petite Grocery. Two former sous chefs from Peristyle, in partnership with gourmet caterer Joel Dondis, opened the best new restaurant of the year on Magazine Street. The building was for many decades Frank A. Von Der Haar’s fine grocery store (hence the name), and after an artful reconstruction of the interior it opened in the spring. The acclaim was instantaneous and enthusiastic, and one still has to do more than the average advance planning to get a table here. The menu is an original take on that of a French bistro, with many dishes that make one’s eyes sparkle with interest just from the descriptions on the menu.
3. Ralph’s on the Park. Ralph Brennan’s fourth restaurant opened under its uninspired name at the very end of 2003. Chef Gerard Maras, whose now-gone downtown restaurant created a following for his ultra-refined, selective cooking, was the headliner. But initial approvals came more from the superb renovation of the 1860s building across from City Park than from the food, which has puzzled many a diner with its subtlety. In recent months, the food has moved more in the direction of the robust Creole food Maras used to serve at Mr. B’s. Ralph’s still hasn’t provided the kind of culinary excitement many were expecting. But that’s how all of Ralph’s restaurants have been over the years.
4. Coyoacan/Taqueros. Guillermo Peters, who has been cooking brilliant Mexican food in very modest circumstances for years, split his culinary assets into two restaurants in the renovated Town and Country dress store on St. Charles at Melpomene, and opened the most ambitious and best Mexican restaurants in New Orleans history. Coyoacan works at the top level, both literally (it’s on the second floor) and culinarily. Problem: it’s hard to get Orleanians used to the idea of paying Antoine’s prices for Mexican food, regardless of its goodness. For those who can’t get their heads around $30 Mexican entrees, there’s Taqueros on the first floor. But that’s still a long jump from what most people think of Mexican food.
5. Cafe East. The family that owns the three glitzy Sake Cafes around town spent seven figures to renovate the ancient Canton restaurant across from Clearview Mall. In the gleaming eyefull of a dining room they serve a pan-Asian menu like nothing seen before in these parts. In addition to a straightforward Chinese list for the shy diners, the kitchen knocks out spectacular food that breaks all the Chinese rules. (Including the one that says all Chinese food must be cheap.) It’s the first major advance in Chinese eating since the opening of Trey Yuen. The service is not quite there yet, but the food is.
6. Cafe Adelaide. The branch of the Brennan family that owns Commander’s Palace opened its first new local restaurant early in the year. It’s a big, airy space in the just-opened Loew’s Hotel on Poydras, and acts as both the hotel’s food operation and an independent restaurant. The good news was that it brought Chef Kevin Vizard, one of the best artists of traditional Creole cooking, back to the mainstream. The bad news is that something seems to be holding him back from really cutting loose. My guess: an ungenerous food-cost imperative from above.
7. Rib Room. After drifting with its reliable regulars into the margins during the past few years, the Rib Room got a two-million-dollar facelift over the summer (its first since it opened in 1960), and reopened with a controversial new look. But the same menu: prime rib, rotisserie food, and a traditional-tasting but original Creole menu. Chef Anthony Spizale is very much on the ball here and the place feels and tastes good. It is, however, into the loftiest heights of price.
8. Pho Tau Bay. Vietnamese cooking is without question the fastest-growing in popularity in the last year or two. This noodle and soup house, which opened in a minimal space ion the West Bank some years ago, took over the former digs of Cafe Indo for its third location, and has been packing them in. They have one advantage also enjoyed by other restaurants in the neighborhood: the Canal Streetcar returned, not only bringing an end to the construction that had restaurants in Mid-City choking for air but drawing a great many new customers.
9. Cafe Giovanni. Duke Locicero, one of the more flamboyant local chefs (how many have their own radio show?), bought out his partner in his 13-year-old Italian restaurant in the French Quarter. That left him free to convert his second-string dining room into a bordello-looking bar and to move a few other things around to his liking. Cafe Giovanni also opened for lunch on Friday for the first time in years. The best aspect of this is that the chef has only this restaurant on his plate now.
10. Windsor Court Grill Room. The new chef Jonathan Wright hit his stride this year, and is putting out the kind of adventuresome food that made the Grill Room the premier high-end dining room it used to be for the first time in quite a few years.
Newsworthy but distressing: Quite a few good restaurants closed this year. The greatest loss was the excellent Lee Circle Restaurant, which gave it up during a slow summer. The North Shore was especially hard hit: 124, Bijoux, and Cypress Bistro all bit the dust. But we still have fewer major closings than, say San Francisco or New York.