CellarDoor seeks to capitalize on two hot trends in New Orleans: internationally inspired small plates and renovation of a historic space. Aesthetically, the restaurant hits all the right notes (exposed brick and dark wood) for attracting a crowd angling to see and be seen, but the food is ultimately overshadowed by a largely inhospitable atmosphere.
I'm no Emily Post, but I know a thing or two about dining in public. There are several basic rules of restaurant decorum that should be followed to ensure diners enjoy their meals with relative ease. In spite of its lovely, gilded exterior, attractive contemporary art collection and promising menu, CellarDoor regularly misses on far too many basic tenets of restaurant etiquette to make dining in its halls worth the price.
Rule one: Thou shalt be considerate of reasonable noise levels.
The main dining area is deafeningly loud during the majority of its dinner service, and — if you arrive after 10 p.m. — it's often not worth even attempting to hold a conversation.
Do you like to yell? Do you feel like sharing your conversation with the rest of the restaurant's patrons? This is the place for you. On one visit, a particularly boisterous young man in a vented fishing shirt tipped his chair so far back into our table while glugging from the communal water bottle that he almost landed his hand in my hamburger.
Fortunately, he missed. The burger itself was decadent and rich. The addition of brisket to the patty provided complexity, balanced by the spread of beer-brined, bacon-speckled caramelized-onion marmalade. It is worth ordering the burger and a side of the sweet-and-spicy plantain chips and then taking them to the restaurant's outdoor seating area, which seems to be the only respite from the noise.
Rule two: Thou shalt not be unfriendly.
When the dining area is busy, CellarDoor tends to operate more like a bar than a restaurant, with aloof servers who often seem as if diners are inconveniencing them. While the bar staff is generally affable, the uninterested attitude of the tableside servers makes even the best dishes seem unappetizing.
Delicately skewered lamb kebabs are almost inviting enough that one can ignore the surroundings. The meat is plated on a bed of inventive, chunky apricot and eggplant relish that helps bring forth the best of the dish's Mediterranean elements.
Rule three: Thou shalt throw away broken things.
The char-grilled octopus entree has an arresting presentation — one long, thick tentacle curled around the plate's circumference like a Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea fantasy. Despite its sea monster size, the octopus is tender and supple, marrying well with creamy root vegetable puree spread out beneath it like a sea floor. The dish is a menu standout, but its high points were overshadowed by several noticeable chips in the serving dish, which is unappealing and potentially hazardous.
Rule four: Thou shalt have all (or most) food available.
If you're planning on visiting CellarDoor with a particular dish in mind, be forewarned: Menu availability is spotty, with many popular dishes (most notably, adobo-glazed wings) sometimes going extinct before the dinner rush commences. For a restaurant that prides itself on night-owl hours, it's disappointing when dishes vanish closer to sunset than sunrise.
Even when food is available, key ingredients are sometimes omitted without explanation. Edamame hummus (steeply priced at $11) complete with whipped feta arrived as two wispy paintbrush strokes without the roasted red peppers listed on the menu. Notice of their absence brought a shrug from the server, and the peppers would have added much needed pop of color and texture to the dish.
New Orleans is full of restaurants, and most of them — from food trucks to fine dining destinations — take pride in the quality of their meals and service. With so many options available, it's difficult to imagine the lasting appeal of a restaurant lacking in both.