Opening a new restaurant is never easy. But as the recent resurrection of Mike's on the Avenue shows, opening an old one can be daunting as well.
Restaurateur Vicky Bayley and chef Mike Fennelly originally opened Mike's on the Avenue inside the Lafayette Hotel in 1991, and right away, the chef's fusion cuisine made a splash. Gene Bourg, then restaurant critic for The Times-Picayune, gave Mike's the paper's highest rating in 1992. The following year, Food & Wine magazine named Fennelly to its annual list of the nation's top 10 chefs.
The two partners closed the place in 1999, by which point both were involved with other restaurant ventures. I never dined at this original Mike's on the Avenue, though I heard plenty about its legacy when I started exploring the restaurant scene here. News that Bayley and Fennelly opened a new restaurant early this year in the same address as their old place naturally raised expectations that the old Mike's was coming back. This new venture, however, was intended as something different. Initially called Mike's East West, its menu mixed a few popular dishes from the old Mike's with many new ones — and it featured a sushi bar with inventive rolls and exotic sashimi.
But the restaurant switched courses within months of opening. The owners revived the old name, mothballed the sushi bar and introduced a menu anchored by Fennelly's hits from the 1990s. A string of novel though mostly disappointing meals here has shown the perils of this path. Many dishes are overly complicated, and food that could shine is often blunted by poor execution of the basics.
The tuna Napoleon appetizer arrived as four wonton chips each carrying a slice of tartare tuna quilted over by cayenne and further obscured by guacamole. The crab and crawfish cakes were masked by a confusion of sauces, including remoulade, salsa and guacamole. "Mike's Crispy Duck" might have worked if its wobbly skin was actually crisp and if its flour tortillas were at least warmed.
Still there are enough strong points to assemble a unique and pleasing meal. Smear redfish pate on sesame crackers, wrap crawfish spring rolls in lettuce or order the tender shrimp and spinach dumplings and you'll be off to a good start. I like the smoked tomato sauce on the paneed pork chop, and the seared tuna is another solid entree. Desserts have been good, like genuinely spicy carrot cake and passionfruit cheesecake.
Lunch is stronger than dinner, and this is when Mike's on the Avenue is busiest. Paella with orzo replacing the rice made a satisfying lunch with an interesting twist. But then there are lunch dishes like a burrito of fried oysters slathered in bland tomatillo salsa, a combination that achieves maximum sliminess inside a tortilla.
I suspect the original Mike's on the Avenue made the strong impression it did thanks in part to the contrast it offered to the New Orleans norm and the possibilities it revealed. But times change, and thus far, this reincarnation proves the premise of "you had to be there" isn't a strong enough restaurant concept.