At Press Street Station, the cafe run by the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) Institute, seasonal produce is delivered daily from the institute's garden next door, students from NOCCA's culinary program hone their kitchen skills during internships, and alumni often return to helm the stoves while tutoring aspiring cooks.
This delivers a dining experience in which the ingredients are fresh, food is simple but consistently good and daily specials serve as an outlet for young, creative minds.
Running the kitchen and watching over the students, interns and chefs is James Cullen, who assumed the executive chef position this summer. Before taking the gig, Cullen helmed the stoves at French Quarter gastropub St. Lawrence and ran the small plates program at Treo, the art gallery-cum-cocktail bar on Tulane Avenue.
Local ingredients factor strongly on the menu and the quality of the food and attention to detail is apparent. Dishes go beyond standard cafe fare.
Sous chef Robert Barnard oversees baking of breads, including a bouncy sweet potato brioche. The fluffy bread does double-time, appearing in several sandwiches, including a slow-cooked pulled pork concoction, as well as popping up as a sweet breakfast confection, egg-battered and fried until golden. Pain perdu is topped with a heaping spoonful of seasonal fruit compote and a sprinkling of sweet and spicy pecans, which adds welcome crunch. Like all breakfast items, it is available all day.
Marigny Benedict features poached eggs nestled atop cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes and crusty biscuits. Creamy hollandaise tops the dish but the real kicker comes from tomatillo salsa that is charred and tangy, adding a welcome touch of spice and acid to brighten the classically rich dish.
Grilled peach salad tastes refreshing and clean, and is packed with bunches of nutty, peppery arugula. Pink crescents of pickled red onions add crunchy, briny zing, which is balanced by nibs of goat cheese. On one visit, it felt a bit late in the season for the stone fruit, but the peaches, which were slightly tough, were saved by a thick char from the grill, which added smoky flavor.
A BLT with fried green tomatoes serves as perfect lunchtime fodder, assembled on chewy sourdough bread and served with a mound of fresh, barely dressed mixed greens. The tomatoes get a light dusting of cornmeal flour before they hit the pan, and every bite is rewarded with bursts of juicy tomato interspersed with wisps of fresh arugula and creamy lemony aioli.
The kitchen imparts some subtle local touches, and there always is a seasonal Gulf fish on the menu. Boudin balls carried a deep, offal-forward flavor and were served with remoulade, though I wished there had been more on the plate.
A nod to the New Orleans stalwart, barbecue moules frites take a delightful detour from the traditional French preparation. The bivalves are steamed in the classic manner — with garlic, white wine, shallots and thyme — but also carry a thick, buttery mustard veneer with subtle heat that gets more addictive with every bite. I loved the way the broth — much thicker and richer than its European counterpart — clung to the mussels, their tiny morsels enveloped in the creamy sauce. Hand-cut french fries accompanying the dish are fine, but need more seasoning. It is better to order an additional side of sourdough toast, which is well worth the additional $1.50, to sop up the creamy broth that pools at the bottom of the bowl.
Dinner service may be in the works, but save for a few sporadic themed dinners, the cafe is a breakfast and lunch only joint. With its whitewashed brick walls, high ceilings and wide retractable windows overlooking the train tracks at Press Street, the space feels airy, welcoming and light, and well-suited for a meal any time.