Once a chef gets a reputation in this town, it can be a hard thing to shake. Just ask Mike Uddo, chef of Mike's American Grill in Metairie.
He built his reputation in the 1990s at his family's G&E Courtyard Grill in the French Quarter. G&E closed more than 10 years ago, and Uddo later moved to Atlanta. When word got around late last year that he was back home and planning a new venture, his old regulars started talking excitedly about remembered meals of rotisserie meats and roasted lamb at the former Decatur Street restaurant.
But Uddo had something different in mind for Mike's, which he opened in December at the Metairie address that had been the short-lived restaurant Ardoise and was home to Sal & Sam's for many years prior. There isn't much trace of G&E at Mike's and certainly no rotisserie. Uddo wanted something more causal, though it is not as causal as the name implies.
When I invited friends to try a place called Mike's American Grill on Veterans, several assumed we were headed to a sports bar. Rather, this is a suburban bistro in the nice-and-casual category with a menu covering a lot of ground. The best dishes are Creole-style fish, like trout meuniere with crabmeat, followed by steaks sizzling with garlic butter. Then comes a weaker roster of meat-and-potatoes comfort food bearing only slight chef-inspired upgrades. At dinner, you can get a salmon BLT, or a burger or one of the best tuna dishes I've had in a long time.
The unique paneed tuna is left bright pink, encased in a thin, pepper-crusted shell and crowned with the colorful mix of lemon, parsley and Romano cheese typically found on broiled oysters. It's exciting and elegantly simple, and I wish it had more competition on the menu.
In the seven months since Mike's opened, the menu has skewed increasingly toward comfort food. A considerable portion of the current choices are dishes like meat loaf, grilled chicken breast, Cobb salad and fish and chips. The saving grace of a skimpy bowl of thin shrimp Creole, a special one evening, was that it wasn't very expensive.
A more satisfying part of the restaurant's multifaceted identity is as a steakhouse, and the rib-eye, filet and occasional strip-steak special are solidly prepared. Mike's offers traditional a la carte sides like grilled asparagus and au gratin potatoes.
But Uddo still can't keep himself from reaching for the higher notes, and these excursions produce the best results. Look for seafood dishes that speak to Creole flavor, especially when the grill is involved, like grilled redfish with crusty edges and creative sides. I hoped the grilled tomato and crabmeat salad would never end, not with such lightly smoky, bursting-sweet tomatoes, unusually flavorful mozzarella, big clumps of crab and a crisp spark of arugula.
An extensive renovation of the old Sal & Sam's building — begun for Ardoise and completed for Mike's — has created a series of attractively modern dining rooms with patinaed walls, art-glass sconces and a welcoming bar area. My advice is to pick the dishes that sound like they belong in such rooms, and on which you can imagine a serious chef focusing his energies.