Start with what’s already familiar, accessible and perhaps even beloved, shift the lens for a more customized interpretation, then harness the quickening excitement that results. That’s been a successful approach for many contemporary restaurants, whether the source material is Old Country Italian or New World Latin.
What’s been striking during visits to Carrollton Market in New Orleans, however, is the way that effect extends from the modern Southern menu and across the larger dining experience.
This comes partly, and significantly, from the setting itself. Carrollton Market opened in March at the Riverbend address that had been One Restaurant & Lounge for the past decade. The contours of this one-time cottage, with its wide-open kitchen and dining bar, are very familiar from many fine meals of the past.
But chef and first-time restaurateur Jason Goodenough has recast the place as something thoroughly his own. That’s what makes Carrollton Market one of the more exciting and satisfying fine dining restaurants to come along in a while. It’s a small, highly personalized and professional bistro working new ideas through a menu more interested in regional flavors than traditional dishes.
For instance, crab and tomato salad ($15) gets its energy from composition rather than manipulation. Crabmeat, bound with chives and not much else, is shaped into a neat block like crab charcuterie and waits beside quartered, variegated tomatoes and fennel with wasabi-spiked oil. Drag bites of one across to the other and combine for sharp, cool, lightly creamy flavors of the season.
Take some time too with the fried oysters Goodenough ($12), a signature dish worth the flagship status. These are two-bite oysters, not for their size but for the chance to swirl them around in shells that serve as small pots for bacon and creamed leeks under velvety, lemony Béarnaise.
Fried “tail tots” ($12) transform tail meat into loosely-packed, silver dollar-sized cakes of unctuous pork, relieved by pickled pepper rings, wafer-thin fried garlic slices and Creole mustard sauce. Sweetbreads ($15) sit under the roasted ruffles of oyster mushrooms and crushed capers. A splash of hot oil carries soy and citrus across gleaming planks of otherwise raw yellowfin tuna ($14).
To cook Southern, even modern Southern, you need a good hand with chicken. Carrollton Market takes the bird in two directions. The notion of chicken and dumplings ($20) is reworked but still very rustic, with burly gnocchi and soft but watery, pulled-apart chicken interspersed with speck, the Italian-style ham. I preferred the chicken galantine ($22), which is mostly deboned and wrapped in plump bands around smoky andouille, streaked with jus and crisp all around.
Roasted red snapper ($30) takes a more exotic turn, with its surface bronzed, its center rare and a rise of shrimp fried rice holding it above broth with the gentle aromatics of yellow curry. Little touches elevate the more familiar dishes, like an exceptionally rich French Bordelaise that brought a dark, jammy savor to the steak frites ($28).
Desserts (all $8) are low key. Chocolate chip bread pudding under white chocolate sauce leads the list, and a collection of small beignets with a chocolate pot de crème for dunking invites easy sharing along with a French press of strong coffee.
The best dessert course may be a tasting from across the collection of amaros that general manager Stephen Deisinger has assembled at the bar, or the potent Italian-style fruit liqueurs he makes in house. In this way, some of the curated, personal interpretation Goodenough works in the kitchen carries over to the bar.
The open design of Carrollton Market’s kitchen might seem like a throwback to the 1990s, and that early infatuation with chef personalities and their kitchens. But if all the manufactured drama of the TV chef competitions that have piled on since has worn you out, watching how restaurant cuisine is truly practiced from a seat at this long, marble dining bar can restore the fascination.
You see each step as a dish, a barrage of courses and a full meal progresses. You hear everything too, and it must take some discipline from Goodenough’s crew to edit the famously brusque banter of the kitchen for public consumption. No matter. When it comes to the food, this restaurant does not hold back.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.