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The Year in Cuisine 

Ian McNulty on the New Orleans restaurant world's highs and lows of 2011

click to enlarge High Hat Cafe is one of the new restaurants on a blossoming stretch of Freret Street. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • High Hat Cafe is one of the new restaurants on a blossoming stretch of Freret Street.

If you couldn't find someplace new and different to eat in New Orleans in 2011 it was your own fault. Local chefs and restaurateurs did their part to bring new options, new flavors and new concepts to the scene, and if you had a very specific craving in mind when setting out to sample them that was all the better.

  For instance, whether your ideal pizza follows the thin-crust style of New York, the deep-dish style of Chicago or the artisan standards of Naples, Italy, new pies from Pizzicare, Midway Pizza and Ancora Pizzeria & Salumeria have you covered, respectively.

  If you like your burgers thin, old-school and meticulously crafted, Tru Burger and the Company Burger emerged to sate your palate, and they were joined by stuffed burgers from Juicy Lucy's and still more burgers from Cheeseburger Eddie's in Metairie. If your hankering was more toward hot dogs, you had plenty of company at Dat Dog, a new wiener stand that's proved so popular it's already planning to move into larger digs across the street.

  That street would be Freret Street, and it's no coincidence that half of the new restaurants mentioned above opened along this resurgent, eight-block commercial corridor. After years steadily building momentum, Freret Street broke out as the hot new restaurant row in 2011, with seven new eateries opening this year and more planned in 2012.

  While Freret has centralized a lot of interesting new eats, another trend this year spread them all over town, often in unexpected venues. From just a few examples a year ago, pop-ups have exploded across New Orleans, and these unorthodox eateries were joined by more food trucks making the rounds too.

  One of the longest-running local examples of such DIY dining, Bacchanal Wine, ran into trouble this year when City Hall temporarily shut down its popular, but inadequately licensed, outdoor food and music events. The flap drew more attention to an ongoing complaint by some over confusing or heavy-handed regulation of food ventures, and that issue was the underlying theme of September's inaugural Street Food Derby. The event gathered mobile food vendors from around the region at the Fair Grounds Race Course and drew a huge crowd to sample them all in one place.

  Some familiar names returned to the restaurant scene, with chef Rene Bajeux now at the Rib Room and Guillermo Peters bringing his upscale Mexican cooking to the Canal Street Bistro (formerly the Eco Cafe). The doors closed at Feast, after not quite a year, and Bacco, after nearly 20 years. But other ventures opened, including Root in the former Feast space, Ste. Marie in the CBD, Tomas Bistro in the Warehouse District, Vacherie in the French Quarter, Irish House in Uptown, Metairie's Cafe b and Heritage Grill, both from the former Bacco's team, and, late in the year, Apolline, a revamp of the former Dominique's on Magazine, and Tamarind by Dominique, a new restaurant from Dominique's former chef and namesake, Dominique Macquet.

  The year also offered many examples of the heart and generosity running through the cooking scene. The local restaurant industry stepped up to help people in need — in events like Liuzza Palooza, benefitting Michael Bordelon, and Beasts & Brass for chef Nathanial Zimet, and road trips to bring Louisiana hospitality to tornado-stricken towns in Alabama and Missouri. Restaurants across the spectrum proved that in our community it's more than just what's on the plate that counts.

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