There was a time when no one had to tell you when you were visiting a neighborhood restaurant. The straightforward, inexpensive menu made it clear, as did unassuming ambience and the fact that all the neighbors were there too. But thanks to concurrent trends of fine dining getting looser and neighborhood spots growing more ambitious, it's harder to categorize some restaurants.
But here's one reliable metric of the neighborhood restaurant: How busy is the dining room on an ordinary Monday night or at Wednesday lunch? In the case of Cafe B, things are kicking and people have worked the place into their routines. Some credit must go to the responsiveness of restaurateur Ralph Brennan's team, who wisely — and quickly — modified the initial concept to keep the neighborhood coming back.
Cafe B opened last spring with a menu in line with the gastro pub trend. Chicken pot pie was a signature dish, for instance, and it was promoted heavily. But that approach has been toned down in favor of more local flavors, especially seafood. It turns out people were more interested in oysters fried in buttermilk and whatever Gulf fish the kitchen wanted to saute than slabs of pork belly, poached eggs on asparagus and similar fare from earlier menus. Diners still can get a $15 burger here — and it is very good — but the core DNA now is local contemporary Creole, made a bit more homey than a date-night destination restaurant.
Cafe B came about while Brennan was shopping for a space to reopen Bacco, the Italian restaurant he closed last year. He was looking Uptown, but when he discovered this space on Metairie Road he shifted gears. The Bacco plans have been shelved, and that restaurant's former chef, Chris Montero, leads the Cafe B kitchen.
Bacco's best-selling dish, shrimp and lobster ravioli, made the move to Cafe B too. It's certainly elegant, though for that reason it's not really representative of the menu. The hanger steak is very good, and the chicken pot pie is still available, but the best bets are the paneed veal over fettuccine, shrimp beignets spiked with tasso, lemon icebox pie, and grilled fish with balsamic reduction, a profusion of floppy-capped wild mushrooms and a charred Vidalia onion.
Service is on the ball, though from water choices to optional crabmeat toppings, the upsell pitch always seems close at hand. The renovation of the space has opened it up beautifully, with soft colors, a lovely bar and enough room for a solo diner to read the paper at one table while another group sings "Happy Birthday." To me, a place where people are doing both on any given night of the week has a valid claim on the title of neighborhood restaurant.