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Fully Vested 

Faith in New Orleans brings three new restaurants from a seasoned veteran.

Everyone knew it was coming, this first long, hot, slow summer after Hurricane Katrina, and no one was looking forward to it. Now we're in the thick of it, and the cool fall weather, the end of hurricane season and the return of steady convention business promised later this year seem very far away.

Maybe it's time for a pep talk. If so, it's hard to imagine many people in the city delivering a better one than Fatma Aydin, a restaurateur who does a lot more than talk.

Aydin is a native of Turkey who came to New Orleans to attend Tulane University in the mid-1980s and ended up setting down roots here. With business partners, including her brother Suleyman Aydin and her ex-husband Musa Ulusan, she has owned, co-owned or been a key manager at a staggering number of local restaurants. But by September she was out of all of them -- her ownership shares had all either been sold to others or the locations closed over the years -- and she found herself back in ravaged New Orleans with a flooded Lakeview home and time on her hands.

"I thought I would retire," says Aydin. "All of a sudden the hurricane happens and I thought, 'Alright, you're still too young to retire, your city needs people to invest.' So the hurricane happened and I got back in business again.

"The hurricane took so much away from some people and it gave things to some people. As long as you work, it will keep giving you more."

Now she and her business partners have a new restaurant open and two more on the way this summer.

In June, they opened Roosters Grill, a small, casual place on North Carrollton Avenue near Canal Street, which had been Lil' Ray's Diner before the storm. Ray Horn, the previous owner, is still running the kitchen, which serves lunch and dinner with mainstays like burgers, wings, po-boys and fried seafood platters.

By the end of July, Aydin and her partners expect to reopen Santa Fe, the Southwestern-style restaurant in the Faubourg Marigny that they bought this spring. They plan to keep the same menu in the downstairs dining room, while on the second floor Aydin's brother will run Suleyman's Lounge -- a cocktail and wine bar also serving food.

And in August, they plan to open a casual Italian restaurant called La Vita in the space that was home to Gabrielle Restaurant before the storm. They bought the building from Greg and Mary Sonnier, the husband-and-wife team who expect to reopen Gabrielle in a former events hall Uptown later this summer. La Vita -- "the life" in Italian -- will have outdoor seating, a full bar and, eventually, delivery service. The centerpiece of the open kitchen will be a wood-fired oven for baking pizzas and bread for panini-style sandwiches. The menu also will include salads and pastas for lunch and dinner; Aydin plans to keep the restaurant open past midnight at least some nights.

Opening three restaurants in as many months would be a tall order in the best of times, never mind in the city's current, spirit-testing landscape of short-handed suppliers, unreachable contractors and interminable delays. But that's not even all Aydin is up to. While rebuilding her devastated Lakeview house, she also dons an apron and uniform four days a week to make sandwiches, hummus and other deli items at the Market on Esplanade. The store was opened in May by local grocer Charles Ciaccio in a former Whole Foods Market next door to the future home of Aydin's La Vita.

"I was excited they were opening and I knew they would need people to work there bad," Aydin says. "I just like to work. I didn't want things to stop working in this city because people aren't around. I want things to move. I need to keep moving and I want people to move with me."

Aydin's food at the Market is terrific -- especially her hummus -- but her contributions to the nascent grocery store also include coaching and morale boosting.

"We've had a few days where I was close to losing it, but then Fatma's there to say 'Look guy, it's going to be okay, we can do this,'" says Chris Reel, deli manager at the Market.

Certainly, Aydin's perspective comes from a deep well of restaurant experience. The restaurants she and her business partners have run include CafŽ Istanbul (in the Marigny spot occupied by the Blue Nile music club), CafŽ Hola (which closed before the storm), Fellini's on North Carrollton Avenue, Angeli on Decatur Street and various locations of the CafŽ Roma and Italian Pie pizza franchises, which together had more than 20 locations before Katrina.

The restaurant closest to Aydin's heart, though, was her first: Mona Lisa Restaurant, the French Quarter pizza place she opened with her brother when she was in her early 20s and still an undergraduate at Tulane. That was in 1985, and she eventually built it into a five-store mini-chain with locations in New Orleans and Denver. She later opened the Turkish restaurant Midnight Express next door, which is now occupied by the African restaurant Bennachin.

Aydin is enthusiastic about the business potential in New Orleans, but her optimism is of the pragmatic variety rather than the rose-tinted. For instance, as the interior of the old Gabrielle location is being rebuilt from post-Katrina flood damage, the new design puts much of La Vita's electrical and air conditioning equipment high off the ground.

"That way, if it floods again, we won't have as much to replace," Aydin says.

click to enlarge Fatma Aydin is opening three new restaurants, including La - Vita where Gabrielle used to be in Mid-City. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Fatma Aydin is opening three new restaurants, including La Vita where Gabrielle used to be in Mid-City.
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