Hoping to entice diners with tasting menus, chefs might turn to truffles applied in precious flurries or luscious lobster shipped in for the occasion.
At Muriel’s Jackson Square, the stately French Quarter restaurant, chef Erik Veney has instead deployed tomatoes, working them across each phase of a new four-course dinner menu. The key, of course, is that these are Creole tomatoes, and in New Orleans, in June, this seemingly prosaic plant can ignite just as much passion for diners as any of those prestige ingredients.
“I think people just relish them more because you can’t get it the rest of the year,” said Veney.
“Relish” has a nice ring to it, but it might understate the spell local tomatoes cast on the New Orleans palate. Something of a fever takes hold, and it’s one that spreads beyond the typical red, round Creole tomato now so prominently featured at groceries and farmers markets.
In practice, the term Creole tomato doesn’t specify a variety but rather identifies tomatoes grown in the local alluvial soils. Some people apply the term only to the crop harvested in areas adjacent to the Mississippi River, and some zero in closer still to a harvest exclusively from St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Others are more expansive in their definition, claiming a wide swath of Louisiana as Creole tomato country.
Lately, enthusiasm for the Creole tomato in particular has raised the profile of local tomatoes in general. As access to high-quality tomatoes has grown and as some chefs around town cultivate their own crop, tomato dishes are taking the spotlight at restaurants from the grand to the everyday, and from contemporary creations to traditional treatments.
Fruit in the forefront
For instance, chef Adam Superneau has been patiently watching the progress of tomatoes planted around Oak Oven, his Italian restaurant in Harahan. Only recently, with a big crop finally coming in, was he ready to add the classic Caprese salad to his menu to show them off.
“The salad seems so plain, so simple, but the whole point of a Caprese salad in Italy is how fresh your tomatoes are,” Superneau said. “There’s no point in me giving you a Caprese salad with just ordinary, run-of-the-mill tomatoes, so we waited until we could serve these.”
Vegetables often assume starring roles on the highly seasonal menu at Maurepas Foods, chef Michael Doyle’s Bywater restaurant. But tomatoes in particular have a special magnetism.
“It’s one of the four or five vegetables that come along that really get guests enthused,” Doyle said.
Doyle sources a kaleidoscopic assortment of heirloom varieties from River Parishes farmer Tony Accardo, who is known for the vast and specialized selections cultivated in his farm rows. Doyle is now working them across dishes as varied as an okra and duck liver dinner entrée to the “fancy French toast” with mint and crème fraîche on the brunch menu.
Most specials at the old- school French Quarter diner Mena’s Palace are as predictable as they are comforting (stuffed peppers on Tuesdays, crab cakes on Fridays). But even here, a Creole tomato salad is offered only when tomatoes look good enough for the task. Regulars keep track of its availability, and by June their inquiries are incessant, said Ellie Christakis, who runs the restaurant with her father Leo, a native of Greece.
In fact, this salad is a nod to their Greek heritage, based on an old country favorite known as horiatiki salata, (roughly, “country-style salad”). It mixes thick tomato slices with feta, salty capers, fat Kalamata olives and thin-sliced onion and peppers all awash in olive oil.
“It’s the kind of dish that’s just very refreshing,” Christakis said. “It’s feel-good food and won’t drag you down like a plate of red beans would in this heat.”
Ye Olde College Inn sources tomatoes from its own adjacent Carrollton Avenue farm, and these days chef Baker Guevara’s specials list has read like its own tomato menu. Tomato and beet salad, a soup of tomato, shrimp and squash and a redfish with blistered tomato sauce have all been in regular rotation lately.
The restaurant doesn’t grow Creole tomatoes, proprietor Johnny Blancher said. But this time of year, he purposefully augments his menu with bona fide Creole tomatoes from other suppliers.
“As much as growing your own next door matters, it matters even more to people here to have Creoles,” Blancher said.
Deep roots, short season
Still, one of the most exuberant New Orleans restaurant examples of tomato goodness has nothing to do with the local tomato tradition, or even the season. At Doris Metropolitan, the contemporary Mediterranean steak specialist, the aptly named “tomato celebration” is a lavish and beautiful salad of tomatoes in different sizes, shapes and preparations.
“We get the best tomatoes from wherever we can, and we get them all year,” said chef Shachar Kurgan.
Cherry tomatoes are usually the starting point, which Kurgan pointed out are very popular in his native Israel. From there, a recent example took shape with pear and grape tomatoes, larger tomatoes scorched with a kitchen torch and transparent tomato skin dried to an intense, concentrated flavor. Egg yolk and labna, black pepper, black garlic, olives and slices of Manchego and radish all augmented the chorus of textures and bright tomato flavors.
“The dish is not complicated but it has many ingredients, many different parts, which is why it’s so interesting,” said Kurgan.
He said it is always on Doris Metropolitan’s menu, and it is popular all year. But nearby at Muriel’s Jackson Square, the tomato tasting menu is definitely a limited time proposition. Veney predicted it would last only through the end of June as his hyper-local Creole tomato supply from the Ben & Ben Becnel farm in Belle Chasse holds out.
He’s serving them as a gazpacho poured around a delicate bundle of shrimp, fried capers and herbs; as a salad of broad tomato slices with prosciutto, pickled red onion and parmesan; and as chunky salsa with crabmeat to top blackened drum or, alternatively, as tomato fried rice to escort the pork chop. Pastry chef Toby Dotson even works them into the dessert course as a tomato and strawberry mojito popsicle and tomato jam sandwich cookies.
“It’s fun,” Veney said of the tomato menu-planning process. “It makes you think what you can with them while you have them.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.