Riverbend: 7708 Maple.
Nautical was the first New Orleans restaurant whose success was detonated largely by buzz on the World Wide Web.
The year was 1998. While the WWW had been in existence for a few years, mainstream computer users were figuring out what could be found on the Web beyond the geeky computer-fiddling that dominated the Internet in its early years.
I remember this well because, after twenty years of writing the New Orleans Menu as a print magazine, I began an email version. Around the same time, neworleans.com asked to run my CityBusiness column on its site and to manage a food messageboard. That was enough of success that a new web-based arm of Cox Communications–the major cable TV force in New Orleans–invited me to move to their site, and even offered to pay me well for the content.
It wasn’t long before two unforeseen developments upset this orderly plan. First, anonymous posters on the messageboard turned it into a pit of rancor that was hard to believe. A few of the disagreeable posters began their own competing messageboards, mainly for the purpose of taking shots at mine. (One of them even named itself for that function.)
Among many other things the dissenters had in common was an overenthusiasm for brand-new restaurants. No restaurant benefitted from this stance more than Nautical did. The renegade posters adopted it as their Obviously Best Restaurant In Town within weeks after owner Eric Bay–whose experience in the restaurant business was minimal–opened Nautical. When I didn’t jump on board (I think reviewing new restaurants is folly, and that I am doing a favor to new restaurants by holding back in the early months), they accused me of incompetence or worse. They even held a dinner meeting at Nautical and dared me to show up. I didn’t, and that fired off a new round of controversy.
When I did finally get there, I found Nautical good, original, hip, handsome, and nicely priced. It might have got along as well as it did in the long run. But surely the constant mentions on the web drew in many customers that might not have known about it. All this led to surprising acclaim. Bon Appetit named Nautical the best New Orleans restaurant, based on its reader poll.
Nautical’s fans liked that they could bring in wine without having to pay a corkage fee. Now common, that was a rare state of affairs in 1999. The policy was not by plan. Like a number of restaurants located in mostly-residential neighborhoods, Nautical was prevented from getting a liquor license by the weird laws concerning that in New Orleans.
The place was charming. A turn-of-the-century cottage was heavily renovated inside. A pair of parlors flanking a hallway were converted into small dining rooms with high ceilings and big windows. A few tables were on the patio porch in front. This was before the sidewalk-table phenomenon had begun in New Orleans, and made this a convivial place to dine.
The name referred to the use of boat decking in the floors. The walls were hung with art relating to boats. On Sunday nights, they offer dinners that take you on a suggestive cruise to somewhere exotic.
The original menu at Nautical was created by Micah Martello, a talented young guy who came from Charley G’s. He left after just a few weeks, but Chefs Tommy Sapp and Josh Wood kept Martello’s menu going. The famous appetizer was crabmeat and Brie dip, a rich concoction spread on slices of grilled French bread. An assortment of grilled sausages with several sauces also kicked off a meal nicely. The cayenne garlic oysters were reminiscent of the great barbecue oysters at the Red Fish Grill. A smoked tuna pate was much more delicious than it sounded.
The best entrees involved fish. A caramelized salmon with herb butter was particularly good, as was a pepper-crusted, seared tuna and the daily fish special. They did a good roasted duck with a reduced Merlot sauce is very tasty, and an herbal chicken with pesto.
White truffle oil was the ingredient of the year in 1999. Everybody was using it on everything, to double the price of what it touched. It was good on a mushroom risotto, and on sea scallops served on the shell–something we’ve only rarely seen before or since.
On the other hand, with all these young guys in charge, it was inevitable that they would cross the limits of good taste in pursuit of vogues. I remember a beautiful pork chop, marinated in a spicy blend, grilled perfectly, then topped with a sweet-sour sauce that destroyed it.
Nautical was good enough to last. But other forces were allied against it. That building was no help, as a string of other failed restaurants in it has continued to show. (Singha Song, a Thai restaurant, seems to be thriving now.)
Eric Bay stayed in the food business and even managed a couple of other restaurants after Nautical’s ship sank. He seemed to have a good sense of the business. I’ve lost track of him lately, though.
Side note: Eric’s sister is Willow Bay, the beautiful former model for Estee Lauder and later a news anchor on Headline News. I never saw her at the restaurant.
Finally, here’s the cue to the last remaining anti-NOMenu.Com website to start its inevitable long screed about this piece. (Either that or its ruler will refrain from saying anything, in another failed effort to get my goat.)