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Chewing Over 2007 

A look back at a year in New Orleans' new and renewed restaurant scene

Dining out in New Orleans involves a strange mix of sensations. You can be so full of shrimp, oysters, gravy and French bread you could pop. All the accents around you sound familiar and the restaurant design says New Orleans in high ceilings and big windows framing tangled live oak limbs. It makes you feel like celebrating, throwing a politician in the stocks and pillory, and breaking down in tears all at the same time. That's when you know you're right in sync with another tumultuous year in the local restaurant scene. It could easily happen at Mandina's Restaurant, the 75-year-old poster child for the spirit it takes to rebuild after Katrina. The Mid-City restaurant reopened early this year after a renovation that changed everything but magically didn't seem to make the old haunt any different. Maybe it's possible to sit in restaurants like this and see the work that went into bringing it back from utter destruction without thinking of the calamity that made it all necessary or the bungling in high places that has helped make running any local business a daunting prospect. That's a trick I can't pull off. The long shadow of Hurricane Katrina seems inescapable in this city, even at dinner, and 2007 provided plenty of examples of how its legacy is playing out in the restaurant scene.

Katrina is the only way to explain how chef Greg Sonnier took over the kitchen at the Windsor Court Hotel's posh New Orleans Grill. He sold his storm-damaged Faubourg St. John restaurant Gabrielle and planned to reopen it in a former Uptown events hall only to be thwarted by some highly agitated neighbors and Byzantine city zoning codes. Now Sonnier turns out high-end cuisine with guest stars of tasso, cracklin', boudin and andouille in the hotel's elegant restaurant while ladies nibble cucumber sandwiches at high tea in the lobby.

The storm and its aftermath were also what put Horst Pfeifer, the German-born, classically trained chef who operated Bella Luna, one of the most romantic restaurants in the French Quarter, at the helm of Middendorf's, the sprawling, Depression-era seafood house where people line up outside for dinners of fried catfish. Pfeifer made no progress convincing his old landlord (the city of New Orleans) to reopen the French Market building that housed his restaurant so he switched gears radically last spring and bought the waterfront seafood house in rural Manchac.

Katrina ushered taco trucks onto the local food scene " with the mobile vendors arriving practically on the heels of the Red Cross to feed the legions of Latino workers drawn here for reconstruction jobs " and 2007 brought changes for them, too. Over the summer, Jefferson Parish politicians changed permitting laws in a move to run the trucks off of their streets. Some truck operators left the area and others simply drove across the parish line to New Orleans where a few have opened permanent shops. Places like Taqueria Sanchez, with locations in Gretna and Metairie, and Taqueria Madrid Chilangos in Kenner added welcome diversity and bargain-priced options for local diners with a taste for authentic Mexican cooking. Numerous other Mexican and Central American cafes have sprung up as well, and there are now three Brazilian steakhouses in the area whereas before the storm there were none. At the other end of the spectrum, the high-end Mexican concept Taqueros y CoyoacÁn closed for good.

Some local chefs who took a chance on the city's fragile economic condition after the storm and opened new restaurants found themselves at the center of a lot of positive attention this year. Ian Schnoebelen was named to Food & Wine magazine's list of the top 10 new chefs in the nation for his work at Iris, the intimate Riverbend restaurant he opened after the hurricane. Chef Donald Link, owner of Herbsaint and co-owner of the new upscale Cajun restaurant Cochon, won the honor of best chef for the Southeastern region from the James Beard Foundation. And the six-store local chain Reginelli's Pizzeria was named 'Independent Pizzeria of the Year" by the national trade magazine Pizza Today, which lauded the 11-year-old company's business model, growth potential and marketing.

Chef John Besh had a transcendent year, doubling the number of his operations to four restaurants and making numerous, high-profile appearances on national foodie television programs. In addition to his Restaurant August and Besh Steakhouse, the chef bought the French bistro La Provence, where he once worked, and also opened his new Alsatian-styled bistro LÜke downtown.

The waves of restaurant reopenings in 2006 still left question marks over plenty of the city's well-known establishments. This year saw one celebration after another as many of them opened their doors again, including Camellia Grill, Mr. B's Bistro, Tony Angello's, Venezia, Crescent City Steakhouse, Willie Mae's Scotch House, Rocky & Carlo's, the Bistro at Maison de Ville and Dooky Chase. A new owner is working to reopen Charlie's Steakhouse shortly and new owners announced they will reopen Maximo's early in 2008.

There was a steady flow of new eateries although a number also closed down, including the post-Katrina ventures Table One, Ristorante Civello and Alberta. This year also marked the passing of chef Chris Kerageorgiou, who died in February, not long after selling his La Provence restaurant to Besh, his former protégé, and John Santopadre, who owned Mr. John's Ristorante and was the original owner of Café Giovanni and helped open Smilie's Restaurant in Jefferson.

click to enlarge Mandina's doesn't look exactly the same after its - renovation, but it's got the old neighborhood feel back in - its Mid-City dining room - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Mandina's doesn't look exactly the same after its renovation, but it's got the old neighborhood feel back in its Mid-City dining room
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