The stirrings of home and feelings of homecoming are strong this time of year. No type of restaurant dials into that for New Orleanians quite like the neighborhood joint.
Lately, though, this corner of our culinary realm has been getting some new ideas.
You know the classics by heart, even if you’ve been away from the city for a while. These places have history, local families have histories with them, and that can't be replaced. It's the likes of Mandina’s and Liuzza’s, Casamento’s, Willie Mae’s and Li’l Dizzy’s. In the way they taste, look and sound they convey a sense of place — namely our own.
The new generation of neighborhood eateries have found a way to deliver on this promise too. They feel in sync with the current and modern, but they don't feel like they were just dropped off from the restaurant concept factory. They feel like they belong in New Orleans and were created by New Orleans.
Chefs shift down; flavors rev up
Chefs are people too, and chefs who grew up in New Orleans are no less susceptible to their cravings, even if they made their names with other styles of cuisine. That's the common link shared by the two latest examples of the updated New Orleans neighborhood restaurant.
Rosedale, 801 Rosedale Drive, 504-309-9595
Susan Spicer opened Rosedale just last month in a onetime police station, down a little lane in the crook of the Navarre neighborhood.
Spicer, a native of Algiers, and her long time chef de cuisine Brett “Shaggy” Duffee, also a West Bank native, have come up with dishes that sound familiar but don’t follow the script. Hushpuppies resemble shrimp corn dogs strung along skewers; the turtle soup bobs with gnocchi-like spinach dumplings; and spicy peach mustard finishes the paneed pork chop. This is comfort food that comes ready for wine pairings in an endearingly rustic, indoor-outdoor neighborhood setting.
Station 6, 105 Old Hammond Highway, 504-345-2936
Just over the parish line in Bucktown, Station 6 also opened this fall. It's a modern Louisiana seafood spot in a neighborhood known for the traditional kind.
Chef Alison Vega is best known as founder of Vega Tapas Cafe (which she sold long ago), and her husband Drew Knoll was once a chef de cuisine in Emeril Lagasse's empire. Much of the food at Station 6 could pass muster at a more upscale restaurant, like the American red snapper with crawfish maque choux, the blackened pompano and the tuna tartare with Cajun caviar.
But the low-slung room by the lakefront levee sets a neighborhood joint feel, and the menu follows through with crabmeat casserole served as a dip, lamb burgers next to braised beef sandwiches, oyster pasta and raw oysters planted in iced metal pans.
Beyond the boil
Seither’s Seafood, 279 Hickory St., Harahan, 504-738-1116
The boiling room is the beating heart of Seither’s Seafood, the dining room is beer-bucket casual, and the attached oyster bar is a rollicking little den. But chef Jason Seither has progressively remade his tucked-away Harahan eatery into something altogether original, with creative, even eye-popping dishes running alongside the usual options.
This can include elements of Tex-Mex taqueria and sushi bar, sometimes in the same dish. Order the “tuna volcano” and you get a wild construction of seared tuna, spicy boiled shrimp and avocado around an inverted taco salad shell, heaped with crab stick and dotted with Sriracha. You break it all apart like Asian-Cajun nachos.
Bevi Seafood Co., 4701 Airline Drive, Metairie, 504-885-5003; and 236 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-488-7503
Twice now, Bevi Seafood Co. has taken over traditional though aging seafood markets and rejuvenated them with a recipe that feels as carefully measured as the boil seasoning.
First on Airline Drive in Metairie, and again last year in Mid-City, Justin LeBlanc has added just enough of his own culinary sensibility to make the menu of po-boys, sides and such stand out, while the boiled seafood plays it straight. The result is a casual, counter-service spot to take away a sack of boiled crabs and maybe a stuffed artichoke for home or settle in over a superlative seafood gumbo, a shrimp remoulade po-boy and a draft beer and catch up on a quarter of football or so.
Corner joints, polished edges
High Hat Cafe, 4500 Freret St., 504-754-1336
When the well-known chef Adolfo Garcia and his partner Chip Apperson opened High Hat Cafe in 2011, it was greeted as another sign that Freret Street had arrived. Now, though, High Hat feels like it has been around for a long time. That goes beyond its classic appearance -- the broad windows, the fans overhead, the tile mosaic underfoot -- and shows up in the blend of Creole and Deep South dishes on chef Jeremy Wolgamott's menu.
There’s a lighter edge to dishes like the grilled fish with spicy shrimp and potato hash alongside the full-bodied flavor of the smoky dark gumbo. Instead of onion rings, you might start with Delta-style tamales or a platter of pimento cheese, deviled eggs and pickles, while the bar is stocked with local drafts and house-made cocktail fixings.
The Munch Factory, 6325 Elysian Fields Ave., 504-324-5372
Across town in Gentilly at the Munch Factory, chef Jordan Ruiz knew that no matter what original ideas he brought to his own restaurant, one dish would be judged against the best in New Orleans, and that's the gumbo. Specifically, it’s the Creole gumbo, made with three different sausages and a blend of seafood with filé and peppery spice.
Of all the restaurants mentioned here, the Munch Factory starts from the New Orleans niche of Creole soul, where a superlative gumbo is not just a point of pride but an absolute necessity to be taken seriously.
From there, the Munch Factory takes a broader, looser sweep to its menu, combining downhome comfort food with creative bar snacks to the tune of Buffalo shrimp, backyard barbecue-style ribs, tuna tacos in fried wonton shells and the “Elysian peels” potato skins. Try the beignets with drizzled condensed milk and you may never again look at plain old powdered sugar the same way.
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