The year just past saw a good many restaurant openings, but with one exception there were no blockbusters. It wasn’t like 1990, for example, when Emeril’s, Bayona, and the Pelican Club all opened. The major news consisted of the move of the Windsor Court’s chef to his own place, Al Copeland’s kicking off a new concept, and the House of Blues’ opening. All three were received by thronging crowds, but only the first–if even that one–will make any big impact on the local cuisine.
Here is my list of the best new restaurants of the year. Some of these may have actually opened at the end of 1993, but the public consciousness of them emerged in 1994. And besides–who cares?
1. Graham’s. Chef Kevin Graham, who is talking about opening two more new restaurants and a deli in the coming year, left the safe franchise of the Windsor Court to open this much more casual place. It’s a blocky space on the corner of Magazine and Common, and it’s stripped down to the essentials: no tablecloths, an open kitchen, a floor made of a kind of slate that looks worn out when new, and all-white walls (“when they get dirty, we’ll just paint them overnight,” says Graham.) The food is simple but–as it was at the Grill Room–quirky in the extreme. You’re as likely to find Asian, Latin American, and European tastes as local ones. Best dish: Bouillabaisse-style seafood platter.
2. Vaqueros. A great-looking Mexican restaurant in the Santa Fe style, Vaqueros has given the cuisine of the Southwest what’s been due it for a long time: careful preparation, first-class ingredients, and interesting presentations. What’s more, it overcame the curse of the building at Prytania and Robert: ten restaurants failed there, but this one won’t. Best dish: plato de puerco.
3. Odyssey Grill. An outstanding member of the newly-emerged Harrison Avenue restaurant corridor, this is a great cafe with a mostly Greek menu. What makes it interesting is the emphasis on grilled dishes. They also make a unique sandwich, stuffed mostly with vegetables and lots of garlic, that’s vastly better than you might imagine such a thing to be. Best dish: grilled chicken.
4. House of Blues. Although the main draw here is the nightly slate of name musicians from around town and around the world, the food’s pretty good, too. The chef came over after turning Begue’s into a much better restaurant. Although the menu is simple and casual, the flavor–particularly of the grilled dishes–is there. Best dish: Grilled fish.
5. Doug’s Place. In the former recording studio where every New Orleans musician of note made hits, Doug’s started as another low-price, high-quality steakhouse of the Crazy Johnnie’s ilk. It has grown beyond that to become a first-class steakhouse, as well as a fine grill for fish, chicken, and a few other things. That its address is in the center of the new art district downtown makes it even more appealing. So does the collection of folk art that lines the walls. Best dish: double T-bone.
6. Straya. Al Copeland’s new idea really packed ’em in until people started scratching their heads. Then he added steaks and burgers, and the mainstream started streaming. It is almost certain that you’ll find something on this menu that will bring you back, but it might take a few visits to figure out what that might be. One thing’s for sure: the building is hard to miss, even among the clutter on Veterans near Clearview. Best dish: barbecue shrimp atop pasta atop pizza.
7. Terra. Horst Pfeifer, whose Bella Luna in the French Market gets better as it gets harder to penetrate, opened this casual place in Lakeside Mall with partner Morten Anderson. It’s still in a state of evolution, with a quirky but generally delicious collection of pizzas, salads, grilled dishes, and platters with a Southwest-Italian-Creole palette of flavors. Best dish: crawfish cakes.
8. Petra. A gaggle of former employees from Andrea’s, led by proprietor T.J. Qutop, opened this place as a Mediterranean restaurant. It isn’t that, really–at least not yet. The food is not dissimilar to that of Andrea’s, but has a bit more Creole quality to it. It shows a great deal of polish, although one would hope for a bit more imagination. In recent weeks, Petra has begun introducing a few Middle Eastern dishes onto its menu, and this is welcome. Service is far better than it usually is in new places, and the many private, curtained booths that line the wall are an interesting atmospheric resource. Best dish: eggplant cakes with crawfish sauce.
9. Byblos. This has been a big year for Middle Eastern restaurants. Byblos, which took over the former Casablanca on Metairie Road, is to my tastes the best Lebanese place ever to open in our area. The food is not only carefully made but is built from ingredients far better than one ordinarily finds in these places. The “meza”–an assortment of 15 dishes for several people–is especially intriguing. It’s a comfortable, well-served dining room. Best dish: Kafta kebab platter.
10. Giorgio’s. The West Bank desperately needs more restaurants, and this one helped fill the order somewhat. Two brothers–both of them chefs–assembled a menu of Italian specialties with a tilt toward richness. This has grabbed a significant number of diners, and the pleasant surroundings (it much nicer inside than the barn-like exterior would lead you to expect) and a very low price structure complete the appeal. Problem: it’s in the middle of a block of Stumpf Blvd., which only West Bankers can easily find. Best dish: Crabmeat Florentine.
Although a number of restaurants improved in the past year, I’d say one of those upward swings was especially impressive. Broussard’s, which has been operating as a purely tourist restaurant for the past several years, has been convincingly turned around by Gunter and Evelyn Preuss. The menu is much more refreshing than the old one, and it’s as exciting culinarily now as it is atmospherically.