When the quaint and eclectic restaurant Old Arabi Eats closed last fall, it left a void in the neighborhood. For six months, the tiny spot customers loved for its relaxed atmosphere and simple-yet-polished menu sat vacant. In March, Donna Cavato and Kevin Hackett took over the space and opened Kitchen Table Cafe, a casual restaurant that in many ways feels like its predecessor.
Kitchen Table Cafe is first and foremost a neighborhood joint. It has pale chartreuse walls and a chalkboard listing specials of the day and feels warm and inviting. It is sunny and bright during the day, and in the evening, dim lighting creates an intimate atmosphere.
The short menu features simple dishes that highlight fresh seasonal ingredients. That makes sense, since Cavato was the founding executive director of the first New Orleans' Edible Schoolyard program. Hackett worked at Bywater Italian restaurant Mariza and was the chef at Markey's Bar for several years. Dishes arrive with roasted vegetables, colorful salad mixes and fragrant herb decorations — many taken from the couple's backyard garden.
Fried Gulf oysters are so juicy they almost pop out of their lighter-than-air cornmeal dusting, a welcome respite from versions coated so thickly that any semblance of brine or salinity is lost. The plump bivalves come dressed in light blue cheese and bacon vinaigrette and top a colorful jumble of lettuces.
A smoked-fish spread served with golden crostini has the creamy consistency of a French brandade, with hunks of applewood-smoked drum interspersed with fresh citrus zest. Decorated with Kalamata olives and cornichons and flecked with bright green parsley florets, the dish is like European peasant food with a Gulf Coast twist.
Several dishes appear to be inspired by international cuisines. There's Asian-accented chicken coated in tamarind and lemon grass glaze, and a take on the Italian shrimp fra diavolo, featuring spaghetti tossed with Gulf shrimp and garlicky tomato broth. The kitchen doesn't wander into fusion territory, staying well within the comfort zone of contemporary American cuisine.
Seared hanger steak stands out and proves that simplicity can trump fancy technique. Strips of steak arrive a perfect medium rare with a flavorful medley of sauteed mushrooms and garlic, parsley and citrus gremolata.
The lone vegetarian dish — a baked potato and cheese gratin — seems more like a side dish than an entree.
Dessert is comforting and simple. Banana bread pudding is reminiscent of the local standard, but instead of caramel or bourbon sauce, it has a syrupy dark chocolate glaze that makes it seem like a decadent banana split.
Kitchen Table Cafe is the kind of spot every neighborhood wishes it had. Arabi residents are fortunate to have it.