Chef Scott Snodgrass gained enough fans at Clancy's, where he was executive chef, that they could have collected dues and formed a club. They followed him to One, which he co-owns with his old friend Lee McCullough. Freed from the tethers of Creole conventions, Snodgrass gleefully pulls together a United Nations of culinary traditions ' Cajun and Creole, yes, but also French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese. The result is a menu stamped with his distinct personality.
Some dishes were subtle. In the English pea and lump crabmeat bisque a seamless sweetness brought out the best qualities of the two main ingredients. It was like a happy genetic experiment that grafted a green pea to a crustacean. On a salad, the tuna carpaccio's red interior nearly matched the blood-orange hue of the Japanese ponzu dressing. After tasting the orecchiette pasta, I reread the menu to see if it truly was vegetarian, because the mushroom jus, wild mushroom and copious pine nuts produced such a meaty, full taste.
Other dishes were bold. The pulsating flavors of red wine vinaigrette and pungent Roquefort cheese vied for attention on the char-grilled oysters. The redfish escaviche appetizer had enough flavors for an entire meal: the vinegary fish shared the plate with a tangle of tart green papaya salad and a ball of barely sweet coconut sorbet. Many chefs would be satisfied to serve just an earthy mushroom pate, but Snodgrass added a meticulous salad of preserved fennel over bitter greens. Anise seeds were scattered across the mellow fennel, and their strong licorice flavor reminded me how fennel tastes before marinating knocks off its edges.
Snodgrass calls his cooking 'contemporary comfort food,Ó and most of the entrees, despite their complexity, would satisfy fans of meat and potatoes. The cochon du lait was a tower of sweet suckling pig topped with a thicket of red cabbage over creamy, stone-ground grits. One may be the only restaurant in New Orleans to offer real cochon du lait made with a whole suckling pig, instead of Boston butt masquerading as this Cajun specialty. The free-range chicken in the coq au vin reminded me that, once upon a time, 'tastes like chickenÓ was not a synonym for bland. The beef tenderloin, though, was my favorite entree. A smear of Stilton cheese glacage coated the top and a bed of beef shoulder rillettes sat underneath. The rillettes, a type of pate with a texture closer to pulled pork than mousse, burst with moistness on the first bite.
At this point, I should offer a few discouraging words, or getting a table in the future will require weeks of advance planning. The service is friendly, but never rises to the level of the food. We desperately waited one night for the waitress to return and take our entree orders. The appetizers had already arrived and between the small table and the large plates we couldn't find a place to stack the menus. The hip atmosphere comes mainly from the open kitchen and the electricity of a room full of ecstatic diners. A designer from Trading Spaces would immediately remove the homely ceiling fans with lights that fade in and out as if the restaurant is permanently powered by an emergency generator. Underwhelming desserts often made a disappointing end to a fabulous meal. The strawberry shortcake was fine, but coconut custard topped with granola seemed like a reproach for not having eaten a healthy breakfast that morning.
There are easy solutions, however, to these minor problems at One. A strong cup of coffee makes a perfect dessert. The open kitchen is the visual centerpiece of the room, and the 'food barÓ lets you sit just inches away from the small kitchen and watch Snodgrass and his crew of three, all veterans of Clancy's, dance in and out of the tight space as they fill bowls with dark roux gumbo or cut slits into a lobster wonton so that the escaping steam would melt the slices of foie gras. The only interruption of the silent routine is a dishwasher announcing 'coming throughÓ as he carries a stack of plates or a bucket of ice to the bar of this Riverbend building that previously served as the home for the Padrino Cafe.
Snodgrass plans to frequently update the small menu at One, which has only five main courses and no specials. I'll be calling for a reservation when I hear rumors that he has introduced the new summer menu. Now that I eat for a living, people sometimes ask me where I spend my own money for dinner. Restaurant One is now at the top of that list.