iMonelli is a tiny restaurant sandwiched between a sports bar and a payday loans business. But looks can be deceiving and often are, for inside is one of Lafayette’s best fine-dining establishments and the kitchen of chef Brian Blanchard.
Blanchard runs a culinary empire that at one time stretched from A La Carte in the Oil Center to River Oaks on Kaliste Saloom, yet iMonelli has never lost its small, cared-for feel. Quiet by day, low-lit and romantic by night, it’s perfect for bosses and boyfriends alike, and Blanchard himself was in the kitchen when we visited.
“Give her a hard time, please, she doesn’t listen to me anymore,” he teased.
The waitress not only listened, she repeated the orders verbatim for a party of six from memory, including substitutions and special requests. Good service is a requirement at iMonelli or the wait staffers don’t last long.
The menu marries Italian and Louisiana cuisines, with spinach and tasso bisque ($4.50) a daily staple. The small cups of spicy soup are more delicately textured than the more common (and much heavier) crab and corn bisque. When it comes to local ingredients, Blanchard stands firm.
“When people ask me if I know how to take the gamey taste out of wild game, I tell them sure. Eat beef.”
Sadly for some diners, the little fried quail are no longer on the menu but a new appetizer, shrimp and scallops over grits ($10) is rich consolation. It’s hard to beat shrimp and grits, as any New Orleanian will tell you, and iMonelli adds a dollop of spicy sauce, pleasing to those who like a new twist on an old favorite, ever so slightly off-putting to the one purist at the table.
A house tradition is the caprese salad, but the smoked duck salad, ($7, small; $12, large) is a delicious regional alternative — pecan-smoked duck breast with greens, raspberry vinaigrette and parmesan. The menu boasts eight veal dishes, ($18-$22) from the classic Parmigiana and Marsala to Osso Buco, stewed until it falls off the bone, but this lunch round, the crab cakes ($16, served with light cream sauce and vegetables) and iMonelli’s celebrated seafood crepes ($8, appetizer; $14, entrée), long a staple on society buffet tables, won out as did Blanchard’s soft-shell crabs ($12-$28, depending on orders of one or two and/or additions) which are perfect every time.
Six women at lunch is no picnic, but there were no complaints. Just to make sure, a male meat-lover weighed in at night, ordering the veal pannata ($22), breaded veal medallions topped with lump crab meat. He cleaned his plate, but when pressed for more specifics, said the breading overwhelmed the crab a bit.
The waitress said we might as well choose a dessert, because “he’ll (Blanchard) just send something out anyway, he can be stubborn like that.” That kind of temperament we can deal with, and we loved the bread pudding in a martini glass studded with fresh fruit. Even my male guest noticed the culinary counterpoint of the strawberries and sweet pudding.
“I like the way this man cooks,” he said.
We did too.