The Year In Dining

We all need something to remember this past year for besides you-know-what. So here’s something cheerful: no other year in the history of this great eating city has hosted so many major new restaurant openings.

Even if you limit the list to places with serious culinary ambitions, it runs to over twenty new names. And all of them are at least pretty good, and all of them are doing pretty well.

Let’s just give as much of the list as we have room for. I’ve ranked the restaurants here in approximate order of goodness. I say approximate, because a) a lot of these places are still too new for a reliable rating, and b) I’m taking into account the reports of readers, many of whom responded to my request last week for opinions.

One more disclaimer: a few of these restaurants actually opened in late 2000. I include them because they really didn’t catch your attention until well into this year.

1. August. The stunning restaurant across from the Windsor Court cost over $4 million to build. It’s staffed with a number of people from the Grill Room. And the kitchen is headed by one of the best local culinarians: John Besh, late of Artesia. His French-based style is enthralled by local ingredients, and the food has a familiarity even as it shows amazing polish and originality.

2. Victor’s. The pinnacle of restaurant lavishness is what the Ritz-Carlton was going after with its flagship eatery, and they succeeded–certainly in Victor’s ability to run up a check. The early talk concerned the tinyness of the portions, but then we got hip to the fact that there were enough of them so that one leaves quite satisfied. Still, the concept may have gone a little too far for this market, and the extravaganza has been scaled back a touch since the opening days. The Chef’s near-complete disinterest in local food is also a minus. Still, dining here reveals a new standard for special occasions.
3. Rene Bistrot. Rene Bajeux was the chef for a few years at the Windsor Court (which, I’d now better say, seems to be doing just fine with its new chef and replacements for all the defectors). His new restaurant, located in the ground floor of the former Pere Marquette Building, not only sparkles inside but brings new life to that formerly barren part of the CBD. The food Chef Rene is doing is quite different from what he had at the Grill Room. It’s based on the classics of the French bistro style, with a distinct home-style quality. The quality/price ratio has attracted an early and enthusiastic following.

4. Lillette. Chef/owner John Harris is also doing a home-spun French number, but one quite different from what we’re seeing elsewhere. As was the case during his time at Gautreau’s, Harris’s food is very personal and often offbeat. The style of the small, tiled dining room is casual and vaguely New-Age, and it feels good Uptown. The menu is in need of a refresher, though. (That’s the danger of being so distinctive.)

5. GW Fins. Gary Wollerman and Tenney Flynn are the partners, and after they left the management of Ruth’s Chris they hatched the idea of performing the same kind of magic with fish. Taking advantage of the current ease of having fish flown in from almost anywhere in the world, they’ve been able to mount a seafood menu with more variety than any other restaurant has ever managed locally. The offerings change constantly, but you will almost certainly have something you’ve never had before here. As well as the local species. All this is presented in simple–sometimes too simple–preparations. The room is unusually designed and open.

6. Eleven 79. The partnership here involves a couple of old hands: restaurateur Joe Segreto and Chef Anthony DiPiazza. Both have many friends–far too many for this tiny cottage, located more or less under the Mississippi River Bridge in the Warehouse District. So the place is always packed, the prices are a touch high, and the regulars get treated specially. So what else is new? Anthony’s Creole-Italian food is as lusty as ever, particularly in the seafood department.

7. Cobalt. Susan Spicer’s new venture is one of those name-chef/hotel partnerships–in this case, with the spiffy Hotel Monaco, in the old Masonic Temple Building on St. Charles Avenue. The space broadcasts the stylistic aims: this place is hip, hip, hip, and so is the menu. As happened at last year’s new Spicer place, Herbsaint, the early months here have shown a lot of uncertainty. But then Herbsaint got good this year, so. . .

8. Chateaubriand. Chef Gerard Crozier’s steakhouse is orders of magnitude more substantial than his good old bistro. The steaks are prime, but there’s lots of that around town. What makes Chateaubriand special are the sauces and the generally French treatment of all the food here. After the usual early stumbles, this has become a terrific place for carnivores. Very handsome, too.

9. Maison Bleu. Of all the French bistros (and, as you may have noticed, French was the hot palate this year), this place comes closest to what you might find in a real bistro in Paris. In addition to the standards, they make the more obscure old rustic dishes. Prices are moderate and the feeling is comfy.

10. Sake Café Uptown. Without question the most physically impressive Japanese restaurant ever to open here, this is two floors of opulence, serving first-class sushi and a large menu of other specialties.

11. Stella! Tucked away in the Hotel Provincial, Stella! performs the avant-garde food that was current a couple of years ago, but they do it a bit better than the places of that era did.

12. Rico’s Bucktown. The former maitre d’ of Commander’s Palace now has a mid-range seafood restaurant using excellent fresh seafood in familiar local dishes.

13. Noble Bistro. An attempt to make Japanese dining rich, this place has clothed tables, live harp music, and Kobe beef and lobster as regular features.

14. Indigo. At the outset, this marvelous restoration of an old Bayou Road store had an incomprehensible, self-consciously chic menu. Things have toned down a lot, though, and each meal is better than the one before.

15. Morton’s Of Chicago. The return of Morton’s after a few years’ absence shows the chain’s great service, prime beef, and excellent wine list. But who needs it in this over-steaked town, other than the gamblers across the street?

16. Fellini’s. The guys who gave us the Italian Pie chain reached a little higher and deeper, and invented this café full of pasta, pizza, and Middle Eastern food.

The biggest story in the local restaurant business in 2001 was its unprecedented expansion. Let’s take a look at how the new places–and changes at the old ones–affected the style of dining in New Orleans. Here’s my list of the most interesting trends, and some thoughts about where they’ll be headed in the New Year.

1. The Rising Price of Dining. Menu prices are always rising, but rarely as rapidly as they did in the past year. Evidence of this is not especially apparent on menus–restaurants know that diners notice even small price rises. It is quite clear in the new restaurants, however, whose prices are significantly higher than those of comparable existing establishments.

Another place this turned up is in the cost of special-event dining. Wine dinners are now approaching or exceeding the $100 mark per person with frequency. That number was a rarity two or three years ago. Many of the Reveillon dinners in 2001, for example, were much more expensive than they were in previous years, with a number over $50 for the first time.

Finally, the escalation of wine prices added significantly to the cost of dining out. Wine got caught by the winds of vogue and supply and demand a few years ago, and the price spiral is absurd. It shows no sign of stopping.

On the other hand, the year’s big disaster showed that many restaurants are quite willing to cut prices drastically when they need to. I saw some promotions this fall that were breathtaking.

2. Simplification. The food magazines have been predicting it for years, if not decades: Americans are returning to home-style dishes. In fact, I don’t think we ever left them; it’s just that the Baby Boomers often have no other place to eat such things than in restaurants, since their parents are dying and they themselves never learned to cook.

Anyway, many of the new restaurants embrace the homeliest of foodstuffs and dishes. And, except for Al Copeland’s behind-the-times places, we’re not talking about meat loaf. Chefs are lavishing their fullest creativity and best ingredients on short ribs, liver and onions, roast chicken, and pie. All to great effect.

3. Return Of Local Seafood, And Advent Of Foreign Seafood. After a few rough years, we are currently in the middle of the best seasons in memory for many of our area’s best seafoods. Oysters and shrimp are as big and meaty as anyone remembers. Crabs are now out of season until things warm up, but the 2001 season was exceptionally long and excellent for crabmeat and soft-shell crabs. Crawfish, which have been terrible for years, showed up on time for the first time in a long time this fall.

Meanwhile, a special-interest-group threat to restaurants’ supply of local finfish was defeated in the legislature. It’s possible that the artificial constraints on trout, redfish, and other restaurant favorites may be eased in the next few years. The fish populations are healthy and ready. I’m hoping (and expecting) that soon there’ll be no excuse for restaurants with no fish other than catfish, tilapia, and salmon.

While all these local riches come to the table, seafood from other lands is making a strong bid for a place. One of this year’s new restaurants shows how strong. GW Fins’ whole theme involves flying seafood in from all over the world. A crab festival featuring three species from Australia shows just how far they’ll go. Sea bass and striped bass–two fish we never saw five years ago–are now common. Get ready to eat a lot of new fish in the coming year.

4. Smaller Dinners. Table d’hote lunch and dinner specials historically ran three or four courses respectively. But they’ve shrunk down to two in many restaurants. This has been accompanied by a reduction in prices. Whoever started this trend quickly learned that this was cool with most diners, who were looking for an excuse to reduce their food intakes anyway.

There’s no question that people are eating smaller portions. The one counter-blip is the steakhouse category, which persists in putting out massive slabs of beef. However, even there people are discovering that they can eat well by splitting courses two ways.

The biggest downtrend: dessert. We’re eating far fewer of them than we were ten years ago. I think this is largely due to a failure of imagination in the dessert department of most restaurants. But sweets are off limits for many of us.

5. Stability. Even with all the openings in 2001 and the stresses of the last few months, we’ve had almost no restaurant closings in the area. Here’s the entire list of serious places that locked the door: Metro Bistro, CreOla, Sutherlin’s, Agave. (I know of another that will happen by the time you read this, but the owners will not confirm.) The owner’s of Kelsey’s didn’t close the place, but they did sell it to operators who will evolve it into a different restaurant with a new name over the next few months. In all other cases except the Metro Bistro, other restaurants moved into the vacated spaces almost immediately.

One more: the mother company behind Muriel’s has declared bankruptcy, cancelled its new restaurants, and greatly reduced the scope of its Palm Springs location. But there’s no report that the local Muriel’s will pass from the scene.

In contrast, the pace of closings in other cities is much more rapid. Guys who write columns like this elsewhere have a report on a closing almost every week. The restaurant business appears to be quite solid here.

6. More Visible Chefs. This is certainly nothing new, but the trend for chefs to be as talented in the media as they are in the kitchen continues. With good reason: we’re making stars out of them, asking them to turn out in public more often in a month than the background chefs of old did in a lifetime. I think this is okay as long as they have the management skills to keep a staff of seriously good cooks on hand to, you know, cook the food.

We can’t leave 2001 behind without noting the loss of two legendary chefs. Warren Leruth and Jamie Shannon passed away within a couple weeks of one another. The former set the standard for celebrity chefs in New Orleans; the latter was everything you’d want in the modern version of that creature. The sorrow expressed by local diners was heartfelt and widespread, and shows just how important our chefs have become in our lives.

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