Loubier handles food like a man. He ties yellowfin tuna up with bacon and throws it on the heat; if you didn't know better, you would think it was a fine country ham. He tosses duck cracklin', pulled pork and goat cheese into the same arugula salad. He garnishes classically braised lamb shanks with pistachios. He gives his not-too-sweet sweet potato pie an unheard-of balance with a salty white chocolate sauce. Like understanding why a young father would dare to attempt an Everest summit, it's difficult to comprehend some of the risks Loubier takes in the kitchen. But dish after dish, if you don't get closer to understanding his thought process, you begin to regard him as a fearless leader plumbing the possibilities of Creole cooking. Inevitably, he resurfaces with yet another preparation you can't believe you haven't encountered before.
As with any good man -- er, I mean chef -- Loubier's style is also sensitive in the right places, taking care that you don't miss a single expression of his affection for an ingredient or a dish. In the spring, he tops spinach salads with dark-red strawberries whose truest strawberry essence has been leeched to the surface with a soaking in syrupy balsamic vinegar. Smoked salmon cheesecake (an appetizer special) and chocolate cheesecake are whipped with magic hands to a tangy melt-in-your-mouth mousse. The chile tingle in a coconut milk-based lemongrass and shrimp soup is as clean as wintergreen gum.
While Loubier, a New Yorker by birth, has spent the past 16 years cooking in New Orleans, including a 10-year stint under Jamie Shannon at Commander's Palace, certain of his dishes are plain Southern rather than typically New Orleans. Take the coarse molasses spoonbread, which is baked in a little iron skillet as a lagniappe, and which can soak up more melted honey butter than a wet vac. I admit to once spontaneously choosing Dante's Kitchen for dinner on the promise of this spoonbread alone. Then there's the appetizer of buttery grits, shrimp, andouille and red-eye gravy (a thin jus of ham drippings, water and coffee), which could only be improved if it was also eaten straight from a skillet.
Still, Dante's Kitchen could only exist in New Orleans. It's the kind of place you take out-of-town guests when you want to show them the spirit of the city as experienced through something other than a gumbo. Like a chowder of plump, lippy oysters, perhaps, with profiterole-ish cheese puffs floating upon its surface. One early evening, unable to convince visitors that any restaurant is worth a two-hour wait, I shuttled them from Jacques-Imo's to Dante's Kitchen. Afterwards, my friends wondered why I hadn't taken them there in the first place.
Some of Loubier's wackiest successes -- sheepshead crusted in falafel batter and served with nutty Chinese black rice -- come off as if they were inspired by what he found on sale at the gourmet market one day. Apropos of this relaxing approach to food, Dante's Kitchen is located in an antique Riverbend Creole cottage where Dante Street meets the levee. The various rooms, all different, are shabby chic -- so homey they feel as though someone's sofas, armoires and bookcases were removed just yesterday. Outside on the jungley patio where you might fight a cat for a seat, the ground trembles from passing trains and the river's tickling winds creep over the levee. Despite a respectable, inexpensive wine list, Pimm's Cups and tart key lime margaritas were intended for such settings.
The service staff at Dante's Kitchen, headed by Loubier's business partner Lee Yates (formerly of Cafe Rani), is a well-chosen collection of Generation X-ers. They're good-looking, tastefully tattooed and pierced, and smart if not overly concerned; they know their Merlots, wear vintage J. Crew and sometimes harbor an amusing disdain for undergarments. And they all worship the same superhero: "E-Man," their chef who pairs swordfish with foie gras in a single bound.
The only exception to the quality, heartwarming food and service I experienced over the course of a few months was during one fateful lunch. I still kick myself for choosing the day when the tension between employees played out in slamming silverware, and when one lethargic waitress received my dessert order like it was news of a rotting wisdom tooth. Eaten in this atmosphere, sour beans in a burrito, a granular, unburned creme brulee topping and not-so-fresh bread tasted like the end of the world.
I'm willing to believe the chef wasn't there that day, which is no excuse but a darned good justification. Once Loubier's handiwork has traveled from stomach to heart, there's boundless room for amnesty.