An initial visit to Daniel's on the Bayou requires a leap of faith and a good set of directions.
Daniel's is inside the Esplanade at City Park, an apartment building of Soviet scale that makes restaurant access a challenge. Use the building's main entrance and you're in for a long walk down an echoing corridor. An easier option is to get buzzed-in through one of the iron gates fronting Esplanade Avenue.
The leap of faith is necessary to believe getting to the place will be worth the effort. It should be, provided you're looking for a meal short on fuss, aggressive on seasoning and easy on the wallet.
Chef/owner Daniel Tobar uses garlic the way Café du Monde uses powdered sugar. It's everywhere, and you take a bit of it with you when you leave. Minced nubs of it pave the bottom of a bowl of shrimp Jacqueline, which is like New Orleans barbecue shrimp over fettuccini. Roasted garlic is practically a meat substitute in the vegetarian pasta primavera, and by the time I ordered the pan-seared redfish one night, it was no surprise to find the large fillet studded with the stuff.
Tobar is a native of Ecuador who moved to New Orleans in the 1980s. He had a Metairie restaurant called Daniel's until 2003 and later opened a breakfast and lunch joint in Mid-City near the criminal courthouse, but it was ruined by the levee failures.
His latest restaurant is his most ambitious, though the place is a casual café. Sandwiches, pastas and the occasional steak comprise a menu with entrées rarely venturing above $14. The low-ceilinged dining room feels like a converted apartment unit and the dimensions feel cozy, but the location is just quirky enough to be endearing, and the mood is friendly.
The grandest dish is the rack of lamb, which was served quite rare with a straightforward mix of sautéed green beans and spinach, again with a liberal flurry of garlic. There is a rigid lineup of daily specials, which start with mysteriously bland red beans on Monday but improve from there. The most impressive is Thursday's grilled pork medallions, humming with cumin and similar to a roasted pork dish on the regular menu.
On the casual end of the choices are burgers and po-boys, which reconfigure a few of the kitchen's standbys, like the roasted pork and the shrimp Jacqueline. Tobar's large, well-seasoned meatballs and chunky marinara sauce were more satisfying crammed into a crumb-shedding loaf of French bread as a Thursday sandwich special than when they were dished over spaghetti as Wednesday's plate lunch.
The stewed chicken dish seco de pollo is Tobar's tribute to his Ecuadorian upbringing, and his version contains blasts of lemon in a smothering sauce tangled with cilantro. It stands apart from the largely Mediterranean menu, but its robust, rustic flavor — and $10 price tag — is in sync with the overall style.
The bar offers 20 wines, and even the disappointing ones have the redeeming quality of being served in huge glasses consistently filled above the four-finger mark. A $6 glass of Shiraz saw me through two courses, or the equivalent of approximately two garlic bulbs.