The Year In Dining

Whether or not you became wealthier this year, the restaurant business thought you did. The two most expensively-built restaurants in the history of our town opened, and the trend is very much in the direction of bigger budgets for dining out.

The Sixties egalitarian in me notes that the growing gap between the rich and the poor in our country is reflected in our restaurants. The top-end restaurants are swinging up to price levels that make them unaffordable even for special events for a larger portion of the population. We have twice as many restaurants whose average dinner entree price is above $25 as we did at this time last year. Also twice as many whose menus are dominated by $30-and-up entrees.

In this, we’re not blazing a trail. Other major dining cities long ago reached and exceeded these altitudes. And I’m talking about Atlanta and Dallas here, not New York and Los Angeles.

Another curiosity–at least from the supply-and-demand perspective–is that reservations in these very expensive restaurants are among the most difficult to procure.

It’s been The Year of Major Restorations. The two biggest stories in the local restaurant world were both re-openings of very old, closed restaurants. Delmonico, which closed early in 1997 after 100 years, took over a year and about $4 million of Chef Emeril Lagasse’s money to get back open again. The results of all the work are gratifying, though, and worth the wait. Whether you like modern or traditional design, you’ll almost certainly love what has been done with the old building on both its floors. Having been a long-time habitue of the old Delmonico (I even cooked in its kitchen a couple of times, so I really knew the place), I can tell you that they made the most out of the place. Certain parts of it–notably the renovation of the old Cornstalk Room in back of the kitchen–are startlingly brilliant.

Whether he intended it or not, Delmonico is Chef Emeril’s answer to Commander’s Palace, his old employer. It has the same kind of antique-but-contemporary charm. This is also true of the menu, which set out to serve culinary classics that were left behind in the storm of creativity that has dominated the cooking scene for the past decade. I think that’s a great idea. But it already seems that Delmonico’s menu is edging in an inventive direction. That’s fine, and fully expected: some of the most successful restaurants in town (Commander’s, for one) blend cutting-edge food with traditional dishes.

Delmonico’s prices are very high, and the locals are grumbling. It goes something like this: “My wife and I went to Delmonico for lunch. I had the cheapest special and one glass of wine. My wife ordered a la carte and drank iced tea. We had one dessert. With tax and tip it was $100. I liked it, but I won’t be able to do that often.”

The second-biggest opening of the year would have topped any other year, but there’s no standing in front of Emeril at this point in his career. After a renovation that took even longer than Delmonico’s, the New York-based steakhouse chain Smith & Wollensky opened at the highly unlikely corner of S. Rampart and Poydras. Part of the restaurant occupies the old Maylie’s, an 1876-vintage place that closed over a decade ago. It was in such an advanced state of disintegration that it’s astonishing (and delightful) that it was saved.

Smith & Wollensky is the most expensive restaurant ever built in New Orleans, by quite a bit. It cost at least $6 million, and I’ve heard tell of a final tab of $8 million. The opinions I’ve heard about Smith & Wollensky on my radio show are not unlike those on Delmonico: stunning place inside, very impressive culinary credentials, but frighteningly expensive. That a steakhouse could be even more expensive than Ruth’s Chris is a statistic that carries a lot of freight among Orleanians. That still has not prevented lots of them from dining at Smith & Wollensky, at least once. Whether the looks of the place and its three-week-dry-aged beef will bring them back again, especially at night, is not a matter I’d bet on.

A third restoration of note is the new Bravo!, an Italian chain out of the Midwest that opened in a marvelously well rebuilt old warehouse on St. Charles Avenue. The food was a substantial leap above the levels of other mass-market chains. At least one more Bravo! is coming.

It’s impossible to discuss the year in dining without checking on what the Brennans have been up to. They opened two new establishments this year. Dick Brennan has been talking about opening a first-class steakhouse for as long as I’ve known him, and this year his son Dickie finally came through with it. Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, as the place is so generically named, is a handsome, tiled, masculine establishment that has the distinction of being the only New Orleans restaurant located mostly below street level. It opened quietly right before Thanksgiving, and delivered on its promise of serving a great steak. It’s too new to assess, but I must say it feels good to me.

The other new Brennan operation is not quite there yet, but may beat the ball drop. Storyville District is a partnership between Ralph Brennan and Quint Davis. It’s mostly a music club, but food will be a major presence. Ralph Brennan’s Red Fish Grill, which shares the Bourbon-at-Iberville corner of the old D.H. Holmes Building with Storyville District, will sort of merge into the new operation.

The division and re-allotment of ownership of the Brennan Family restaurants (that’s everything but Brennan’s itself) jelled this year. Dickie Brennan and his sister Lauren have put their stamp on the Palace Cafe, which is a much better place than it was a year ago. Cindy Brennan is so much in control of Mr. B’s that hers was the only name on the bottom of B’s Christmas card this year. Ralph is in sole control of Bacco now, as well as the Red Fish Grill.

Over at Commander’s Palace, Lally Brennan and Ti Martin (Ella’s daughter) did a major renovation of the courtyard, making it more easily usable for dining and more pleasant. Meanwhile, they announced plans to open a Commander’s in Las Vegas (Ti’s brother Alex, who also runs Brennan’s in Houston, is heavily involved, as is their cousin Brad Bridgman). And, as if that weren’t enough, they’re also planning to open a gourmet-to-go place next to Dorignac’s. But that’s a story for next year.

One final Brennan note. We felt the loss of John Brennan, father of Ralph, Cindy, and Lally. He was one of the smartest and most charming men in the local food trade, and it still feels funny to go to lunch at Mr. B’s and not see him there.

You can’t end a year or begin a new one without making your list of where things stand in your world. Here are a few of mine:

10 BEST NEW RESTAURANTS OF 1998

1. Artesia. Great French-inspired food in a fine little old resort hotel in Abita Springs, using lots of food grown in the restaurant’s own farmlet.

2. Gerard’s Downtown. Gerard Maras was the chef who made Mr. B’s great. He’s been out of the loop for awhile, but his new place on Lafayette Square is polished and surprisingly classical.

3. The Red Room. We desperately needed a restaurant with both great food and great live music, and we got it.

4. Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse. Dick Brennan has been talking about building an impressive steakhouse for at least 20 years. His son has finally done it.

5. Vizard’s. Kevin Vizard has impressed me for years, and in this more comfortable location of his first restaurant as proprietor, he’s doing it better than ever.

6. Delmonico. A stunning environment. Good cooking in a classical vein. But so expensive that disappointment is likely to register.

7. Smith and Wollensky’s. See above.

8. 201 Bistro. This occupies the space that was formerly Criollo (see below). The food is adventuresome Creole, but not so far out that they can’t bring themselves to do good baked oysters.

9. Mescaleros. (Covington.) The second good Santa Fe-style restaurant locally, with very good barbecue to boot.

10. Maple Street Grill. Inexpensive, no liquor license (bring your own wine), but surprisingly polished contemporary Creole and Italian cooking with a touch of the Middle East.

THE MOST IMPROVED RESTAURANTS OF 1998

1. Cafe Giovanni. It was already terrific, but meals this year were so exciting, and the addition of the singing waiters such a great touch (really!) that this has become one of the best restaurants in town.

2. Broussard’s. Chef-owner Gunter Preuss is back in the kitchen, and that’s nothin but good news.

3. Palace Cafe. Dickie Brennan made all the right changes to a neat restaurant that seemed to have lost its way.

4. Drago’s. The physical changes were dramatic, but the menu additions brought a new dimension to the old seafood place.

5. Peristyle. Any cavils one might have had previously have been polished away in one of the town’s most charming and best small gourmet rooms.

6. Red Fish Grill. Started off commercial and unappealing, but much better now. Still needs more range to its menu.

7. Dakota Wine and Feed Store and Cafe. The Cafe has become a full-fledged restaurant, with great specials and more than a few fine regular menu items. Not just sandwiches and salads anymore.

8. Fleur de Lee. Chef Billy Brigtsen’s abbreviated menus present fascinating surprises every night, and with a Louisiana taste.

9. K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. The more they focus on locals, the better they get. Now, about those prices. . .

10. La Riviera. It’s hard to believe that after all these years Chef Goffredo can find any way to improve his offerings, but he does.

TEN BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF 1998

1. The destruction of Bruning’s by Hurricane Georges. America’s oldest casual seafood place will have to be built from the water up at West End Park. It was closed completely for a couple of months, but is now operating out of temporary quarters right in front of the old site. The good news: it’s as delicious as ever.

2. Sclafani’s in the Quarter closing. Peter Sclafani III was hitting his stride and just starting to attract some locals to his terrific food, but he got a better offer in Baton Rouge.

3. Sazerac changes. The grand dining room of the Fairmont Hotel–one of last bastions of service in the classical manner–will reopen as a much more casual restaurant in February. But we’ll miss the tableside service, and we really missed Christmas there this year.

4. Criollo’s closing. The excellent Caribbean-Central American place could not survive an argument between the proprietors.

5. The passing of John Brennan. Perhaps better known to diners as the father of Ralph, Cindy, and Lally Brennan, he was a tremendous figure behind the scenes and one of the most charming gentlemen in the business.

6. Floundering at Antoine’s. What’s going on over there? Where are all the good waiters going?

7. Delmonico. I don’t know how you feel about it, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Too expensive, too pretentious.

8. The general rise in menu prices around town, especially at the popular restaurants.

9. The continued encroachment upon our city of the national chain restaurants. We’re still not dominated by them the way some other cities are, but they keep coming and keep taking it away from the local guys.

10. The closing of the Italian Grill. Not enough people got a chance to see how good it could be. Problem: bad name.

TEN MOST INTERESTING LOCAL FOOD PEOPLE OF 1998

1. Chef Emeril Lagasse. You can’t avoid the guy, although wobbles are showing as he tries to keep more balls in the air.

2. Chef Susan Spicer. Her new Spice Inc. is the first really good cooking school here for would-be gourmet home cooks. It also sells the ingredients you always wanted to cook with but couldn’t find.

3. Chef Anne Kearney. The talented and photogenic owner of Peristyle keeps her place at the top of the list for the sophisticated diner. Her face has been in a few influential food publications. And she got married!

4. Ti Martin and Lally Brennan. The two cousins, the up-front proprietors of Commander’s Palace, made a major renovation of the courtyard there, announced plans for the opening of Commander’s in Las Vegas, and also a new gourmet-to-go place next to Dorignac’s, to be called “Foodies.”

5. Tommy Cvitanovich. He’s has managed his family’s great seafood restaurant Drago’s for years, and invented its most famous dish (char-broiled oysters). Now he’s preparing to open a second location somewhere in the Warehouse District. This year, he renovated Drago’s and dramatically updated the menu.

6. Vicky Bayley. She came from a non-restaurant background to open one of the most interesting restaurants in town, Mike’s on the Avenue, a few years ago. Now her new place, Artesia, is doing it over again with a totally different style. At the same time, she’s a relatively new mother with another on the way.

7. Vincent Catalanotto. The former waiter, a rough-edged yat with a wild sense of humor and an unpredictable personality, opened the second location of Vincent’s in the old Compagno’s. It’s exactly like the first place, which is to say great food with no pretensions.

8. Al Copeland. Wrap sandwiches have not turned out to be permanent parts of the culinary landscape, so he pulled something else out of his sleeve (Wholly Mackerel, which took over one of the Wrap ‘n’ Rolls).

9. The Taste Buds. Greg Reggio, Hans Limberg, and Gary Darling–the founders of Semolina–opened a strange new joint called Zea Cafe, and have yet another new concept on the boards. Always fun.

10. Iler Pope. Without doing anything different from what she’s always done, her Southern (as opposed to Creole) cooking at Cafe Atchafalaya is turning more people on than ever.

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