The second certainty I gleaned from those glossy spreads is that New Orleanians don't eat and sleep by the country's larger culinary waves. They don't need to. (It's interesting to note that milk punch, steak au poivre and crab -- long in great supply here -- were among one magazine's "hot list.") The city rides its own ebb and flow of ideas and flavors; there's historical precedent for much of what transpires in its kitchens. When trends take hold, they're more likely to be based upon a collective craving than upon intellectual restlessness. Case in point: Who here cares that Ovaltine, Pop Rocks and "crisped garlic scatters" were among 2004's star ingredients?
Which is not to say that nothing happened on the local gastronomic front in 2004. On the contrary, there was enough movement to keep this restaurant writer perpetually stuffed. Do note that some of the following observations don't fit precisely between the boundaries of a conventional calendar year. As it's Gambit Weekly policy to review restaurants only after they've been open for at least three months, I didn't begin visiting several restaurants that opened in late 2003 until early 2004. I trust that hungry readers will permit this fluidity.
Pizza might have caused this year's loudest buzz. When two Brooklyn refugees opened Sugar Park Tavern, local food message boards nearly short-circuited with enthusiasm (and the requisite dissent) over the perfectly greasy, thin-crust pies. Slice Pizzeria, launched by the entrepreneurs behind Juan's Flying Burrito, and Theo's Pizza also helped raise the city's pizza standards.
Much lip service is given to the French influence upon the region's cooking traditions, but there are scant similarities between the two countries' contemporary eating habits. The year 2004 filled in one of the gaps with the three creperies, a staple of the Parisian street food scene. Listed in order of my preference, they are The Creperie of Bourbon House, Crepes a la Carte and Cafe de Mello.
This isn't the first year for the catch phrase "small plates," but the concept of noshing on several little portions, rather than following the traditional meal trajectory of first course, main course and dessert, is finally taking hold here. Joining Vega Tapas Cafe and Herbsaint, which were ahead of their time, a restructured Indigo and The Delachaise (a wine bar) introduced small plates menus. Upstairs at Mimi's, Madrid Restaurante, RioMar and Marisol take a Spanish tapas approach, RioMar offering tapas lunches and Marisol hosting tapas happy hours.
There are oodles of Asian restaurants, the best of them Vietnamese, in the far reaches of eastern New Orleans and in the suburbs, though it wasn't until 2004 that a few immediately successful openings marked a mainstream embrace of Asian cooking beyond Chinese: Pho Tau Bay (Vietnamese) in Mid-City, Sukho Thai (Thai) and the Noodle Bar & Tea Shop (pan-Asian).
Fine Dining Births
The two most widely anticipated restaurant openings yielded new restaurants with tremendous staying power: Ralph's on the Park and La Petite Grocery. The former marries restaurant mogul Ralph Brennan's spot-on business sense with Chef Gerard Maras' housemade pastas and charcuteries; the latter is a pretty showcase for Anton Schulte, former chef de cuisine at Peristyle.
My personal most anticipated opening was Taqueros/Coyoacan, a taqueria downstairs and an up-market Mexican restaurant in one. I've been a Guillermo Peters devotee since my first trip to the original Taqueros, in Kenner, and his new venture does not disappoint.
Also worthy of note are La Cote Brasserie (which underwent a significant changing of the guard in December 2003), Cafe Adelaide, and The Bar and Bistro at La Louisiane. All three up the ante in restaurant design and bar culture.
Without explanation, the Windsor Court Hotel's established restaurant, The Grill Room, changed its name to New Orleans Grill. I sense that the dining public is catching on at last -- to the new name, as well as the handiwork of Englishman Jonathan Wright, who is far and away the city's most cutting-edge cook.
Transition, Preservation and a Save
The restaurant business is in constant flux -- cooks float between kitchens, servers follow their clientele from one dining room to the next and restaurants change hands without so much as a for-sale sign as warning. So it went with the most surprising transition of 2004: Anne Kearney-Sand and Tom Sand sold Peristyle, and Peristyle's signature recipes, to Tom Wolfe, who also owns Wolfe's of New Orleans.
Second only to the Peristyle transition in shock value was fried chicken king Austin Leslie's move from Jacques-Imo's Cafe to Pampy's Creole Kitchen. And, just up the street from Jacques-Imo's, Wayne Baquet sold Zachary's, another paragon of fried chicken. The chicken remains unparalleled, but the restaurant is now called Margaux's.
Jay Nix and John Blancher are 2004's greatest benefactors of nostalgia. Nix single-handedly resurrected Parkway Bakery (now called Parkway Bakery & Tavern), bestowing it a gloss unknown in the old days. Nix is also involved with protecting another icon: The New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Society was established this year by the folks at Leidenheimer Bakery.
Blancher, the man who put Mid City Lanes Rock 'N' Bowl on the map, saved Ye Olde College Inn from extinction when he purchased the 70-year-old restaurant from Emile Rufin. If only Uglesich's -- certain to be 2005's most regrettable closing -- would fall into such worthy hands.
Sadly, some restaurants only operated long enough to whet our appetites: Harbor's Soul Food, Shady Brady's and Big Shirley's. Metairie said sayonara to Foodies Kitchen, and Gretna lost Sabai's.
Further Notes on Good Taste
Cleopatra, Zydeque, The Joint and Fiesta Latina don't fall under any of the aforementioned categories, but they're 2004 standouts nonetheless -- Cleopatra for its Mississippi farm-raised meats; Zydeque for Tenney Flynn's efforts to cultivate interest in regional barbecue; The Joint for its owners' efforts to cultivate their own barbecuing style; and Fiesta Latina for its convenience to the airport (pupusas make superb in-flight snacks).
The Southern Food & Beverage Museum is to be commended for its debut exhibit, A Toast of New Orleans, and for finding a permanent home (it will open in the Old Mint in March). The museum's founders are also involved in the very cool Menu Project, an effort to organize restaurant menus from across the state, enter them into a database and create a mechanism for searching them by date, restaurant type and location.
Finally, a few acquired habits from 2004: Indonique's original recipe Indian chai, Herbsaint's Half Sinner Half Saint cocktail, the Belgian saisons farmhouse beers at Martin Wine Cellar, Wrigley's Bubblemint gum, peanut butter gelato from Sophie's, fries with Andalouse sauce at Clementine's Belgian Bistrot, red velvet cupcakes from New Orleans Cake Cafe and brunches at Lulu's in the Garden. I resolve to keep them all in 2005.