The restaurant trend of using local sourcing and house-made ingredients had a slow start in New Orleans, but one of the places where its impact was early and obvious was Dante's Kitchen. Now, after 11 years in the game, the Riverbend bistro feels ahead of the curve with a deeply rooted supply network and a mature culture of in-house crafting.
The evidence is everywhere, from the blackboard detailing the day's locavore-friendly larder to the rainbow of jarred vegetables arrayed around the bar for easy access rather than rustic decor. Ambience here is marked by the happy bustle of people chowing down in this antique cottage's array of small dining rooms, out in the patio under interlocking umbrellas and even on the narrow porch. It feels like a farmhouse taken over for one big, rollicking field-to-table tasting.
This was the vision of chef Emanuel "Eman" Loubier, a New York native who spent the 1990s at Commander's Palace working with the late Jamie Shannon, an early champion of this culinary aesthetic. Loubier credits Shannon with helping cultivate today's increasingly fruitful relationships between local chefs and farmers, but he deserves credit too for his own tillage through the years.
While the ingredients at Dante's Kitchen are explicitly local, flavors range widely. Grilled pork steak goes upscale Central American with a pupusa, cabbage salad and very spicy red pepper sauce. Drum, wrapped in crisp pancetta with lemon and bitter greens, is like a Gulf fish vacationing along the Tuscan coast. Persimmon and habanero vinegar ripples over roasted duck while chilled bean salad mellows it and truly smoky pulled duck confit stokes it all from beneath.
Brunch is big here, but it's not the time to see Dante's in full bloom. Prices plummet and some dinner dishes get a morning reprise, like the reliable shrimp and grits with andouille gravy. But portions are often less than satisfying and, with no reservations at brunch, a hungry wait is inevitable.
The way to put Dante's through its paces is at dinner with people who like to share, and the menu encourages this. From appetizers, it moves to more substantial "small plates" and then to a column of family-style, pass-around vegetable platters. Dessert is mandatory, especially the mystifyingly light "blue velvet" cake or the banana pudding tart with its salty, crumbled pretzel crust.
A few mainstay dishes are such constants the kitchen refers to them as the "big three": trios mignons, a study of steak with pork debris, Stilton and marchands du vin; "chicken under a brick," which employs a blunt instrument with deft effect; and the simplest, "redfish on the half shell," a long, plump, skin-on fillet covered with crabmeat and a salad of parsley, cilantro, mint, dill and tarragon. The herbs and a splash of vinaigrette take this masterpiece of local waters to places the buttery preparations of traditional Creole kitchens don't, and altogether the dish demonstrates beautifully how a new look at our most common local ingredients can produce something extraordinary. That's why, even after all this time, redfish on the half shell tastes like Dante's Kitchen in a nutshell.