A Summary Of What Went Down The Year Just Past
The re-establishment of Brennan’s on Royal Street overshadows the story of dining in New Orleans in 2014. Like the only comparable development in recent history (Katrina, and I’m not exaggerating), Brennan’s departure and return pose many questions about the states of both business and cuisine in the New Orleans restaurant industry.
Twenty million dollars? “That’s Terry’s number,” Ralph Brennan tells me. He and Terry White are the main motive forces in the renaissance of Brennan’s. Ralph was a CPA before he got into his family’s restaurant business, so he looks at such figures with a critical eye. “I know what the real number is, but I don’t want to think about it,” he added. He didn’t tell me what the number was.
Whatever that means, of this there is no doubt: Brennan’s reconstruction–which went down to bedrock and DNA–is by many leagues the most expensive restaurant project ever undertaken in New Orleans.
On the other hand, in its peak years (1960s-1980s) Brennan’s was the most profitable single-location restaurant in the world. It had the uniquely favorable quality of opening three hundred seats at eight in the morning, then serving a full house at top menu dollar figures straight through until late evening. Question #1, then, is Can this magic be wrought all over again, after over a year’s absence from the scene?
Here’s a followup question: Is this really Brennan’s, or a new restaurant? The façade is the same, and the legendary breakfast menu. But the chef is as near the cutting edge of local cookery as the former kitchen was traditional. Looking over the menu, we find a selection that is only sprinkled with the dishes for which Brennan’s was famous. And even definitive dishes like the turtle soup and the eggs Sardou have been reformulated. Trout Nancy was your favorite dish? Maybe it will run as a special.
I dined at the old Brennan’s enough times that I knew my way around the historic building. (Late 1700s, old even by French Quarter standards). Even so, I guessed wrong most of the time when I tried to orient myself throughout the heavily (but very authentically) restored structure. Even the battered wood floor on the second level proves to have come from another historic building.
All those posers asked, there is no question that New Orleans diners and even familiar visitors to the city are intrigued and delighted by the new Brennan’s. Ralph knows that people will get used to the new layout and the new menu. In exchange for patience, we get fresh surroundings, a courtyard open for dining (it seldom was before), a major menu update for the first time in decades, and (get this!) somewhat lower menu prices.
So what is something like that worth in the market? Enough to make back the nut? Good enough that a meal at Brennan’s will once again be on everyone’s A-list? This will intrigue us for years to come.
Here’s one early indicator. On December 16, the New Orleans Eat Club (an ad-hoc gathering of my readers and radio listeners) put on tuxedos for an eight-course, $150 dinner at Brennan’s. The whole 56-guest room sold out in a few days–without anyone’s even knowing what the menu or wines would be.
Someday, someone (not me, although it’s tempting) will write a book called “The Brennan Family Restaurant Saga,” explaining how and why all this happened. It would be fascinating to you and me. But the Brennans aren’t interested.
So. . .uh. . . what else went on this year? Let’s do the numbers. On December 15, 2013, my list of open restaurants showed 1383 of them. On the same date this year, we have 1405. The peak of this census was in the spring, when the count was 1414. Although most restaurants report that they had a pretty good summer, we had more closings than openings from August through October. That’s typical, but usually it’s followed by an uptick. But the fall restaurant count was flat. That was the story of the whole year on the North Shore, where there was more turnover in terms of percentage than on the South Shore.
When I first began this annual year-end analysis in 1980, it contained a list of the best restaurants in town at year’s end. That list included no small number of perennials like Commander’s and Galatoire’s. Now such an approach–regardless of how much sense it makes–seems antediluvian. Now the dining public is much more interested in the best new restaurants of the year. (Not counting Brennan’s, which is sort of is new.)
1. Square Root. Uptown: 1800 Magazine St. 504-309-7800. It took a lot of guts for Chef Phillip Lopez to open Square Root in the spring of 2014. It’s sixteen seats at a counter in a see-through, dark space on Magazine Street. The menu of the day encompasses a dozen or more courses, most of which require detailed explanations from the chef. The “cooking” process may be still in progress as he places the “plate” in front of you.
I have a low tolerance of contrivances at the dinner table, and I went into my three dinners at Square Root not wanting to like it. But I can’t say anything but that the eating is as viscerally enjoyable as it is thoughtful and complicated. I have some questions about the business model. Restaurants with small customer counts, even when the customers are spending in three figures for their dinners, are difficult to manage. But if anyone can do it, it’s the brilliant Chef Lopez, and my thinking is that parts of his concept will evolve into the next new phylum of restaurant practice in New Orleans.
2. Marcello’s. CBD: 715 St. Charles Ave. 504-581-6333. Much closer to the earth but interesting enough to be Second Best New Restaurant is Marcello’s. It’s an offspring of a wine store in Lafayette, serving what they call Sicilian food (really, the inspirations come from all parts of Italy) with highly contemporary twists and local ingredients. The wine program is brilliant. You pick a bottle from the racks running through the restaurant, take it to your table, and are charged an alarmingly small percentage markup.
3. Cava. Lakeview: 789 Harrison Ave. 504-304-9034. Unlike the previous two restaurants, Cava is entirely traditional. Owner Danny Millan comes out of the dwindling fine-dining category, with stints at Brennan’s (!), August, and the Sazerac. He brings a taste for traditional cooking and intensive service to the restaurant-rich Harrison Avenue in Lakeview.
4. Mopho. City Park Area: 514 City Park Ave. 504-482-6845. Chef Michael Gulotta left the exec-chef job at Restaurant August to open this place, in which Vietnamese ingredients and flavors are given a new spin, with a few New Orleans components. It is wildly popular with other chefs, as well as the growing audience for Southeast Asian cooking.
5. Namese. Mid-City: 4077 Tulane Ave. 504-483-8899. This is the first major restaurant from the second generation of Vietnamese people in New Orleans. If you always eat pho with brisket when you dine on the food of Vietnam, you will find it done well here. But if you are up for something a little different (or even a lot), that is here too. All credible, delicious and very fresh.
Looking for trends (beyond the clear Vietnamese movement above), we find John Besh still opening more new restaurants. I can’t remember the last year in which he did not, and he already has one in the works for next year. Johnny Sanchez–a cooperative venture with another star chef with a television show–is a Mexican restaurant that stretched the boundaries about as much as did Mizado, 2013’s expansion of the Latin American offerings. We will see more of this in the coming years.
Good news: we may have reached a point beyond which there is no room for another gourmet hamburger specialist, regardless of its quality. Meanwhile, the growth in the market for Naples-style, wood-burning-oven pizza does not seem to have slowed. The best of these in 2014 were Oak Oven and Happy Italian, which not only bake great pizzas but do so in Harahan, a part of town that is finally getting the restaurant community it never had.
Finally, those of us who lament the de-emphasis on any kind of formality in dining, even when the check passes a C-note per person, decried this deterioration further during 2014. The dress codes disappear in lockstep with tablecloths. But I may see evidence that this may show signs of ending. It involves the opening of a beautiful, formal restaurant called Brennan’s.