There's a lot going on in not a lot of space at Calas Bistro & Wine Cellar, which opened in early May in a former coffee shop in Kenner.
There's the food, which mixes contemporary bistro fare with some very old Creole traditions -- like the namesake calas. There's the wine list and the integrated retail wine shop, with bottles available to accompany a meal or to take home. There's a gourmet-to-go concept from the kitchen for meals to take home. And there's wine-related programming, due to start on a weekly basis this summer, with tastings, vintner presentations and other events.
Fortunately, the owners of this new venture have extensive experience with operations that require keeping multiple balls in the air. Proprietors Bryan and Vickie Krantz ran the Fair Grounds Race Course for 15 years before it was acquired by racing giant Churchill Downs, Inc., last year. There, they managed 6,000 employees, a state-regulated gaming operation, acres of land, the Fair Grounds Clubhouse restaurant, concession-stand kitchens well known for their corned beef and white beans and a New Orleans institution with a 135-year history.
Calas Bistro, of course, is diminutive by comparison, but the Krantzes have packed it with concepts that speak to their abiding interests in wine, New Orleans food and hospitality.
"We think the role of the whole place is to educate people about food, the traditions, and about encouraging them to explore wines that may be new to them," says Bryan Krantz.
The idea was inspired by a combination restaurant/wine store called Vin'tij Wine Boutique in Destin, Fla., that the Krantzes visited often. Following that example, customers at Calas Bistro can peruse the wine shop for bottles to go or to drink with their meal. The restaurant will offer wine flights designed to highlight grape varietals, geographic variations and pairings with food.
Customers will be invited to join a wine club through Calas Bistro, and members get a special card that will keep track of what they've tried and allow staff to offer suggestions based on their past preferences. It's very similar to gaming player tracking systems used at casinos, says Krantz.
The club is also a way to build a direct mail list for the restaurant's events, which will be held on Tuesdays when the kitchen is closed. The restaurant was built with an audio video system designed specifically to make presentations more engaging in the dining room.
"We wanted to do something that was fine dining but approachable and brought in wines people can't get around here," says Krantz. "We thought the time and the place was ripe. There are a lot of upscale neighborhoods here but nothing around but chains."
Tim McNally, the local wine consultant and radio host, helped build the wine program, selecting a list for the restaurant and the retail shop that avoids labels readily found elsewhere in lieu of lesser known vintners from around the world.
To get the menu rolling, the Krantzes turned to their long-time family friend Frank Brigtsen, the chef and owner of his namesake Riverbend cafŽ. Anyone familiar with Brigtsen's cuisine cannot miss his stamp on the Calas Bistro menu, with dishes like pan-roasted duck with pepper jelly glaze and especially the seafood platter, which has grilled and baked seafood rather than fried. Brigtsen also designed the restaurant's kitchen, which is open to the dining room and lined with a food bar. And one of his protŽgŽs, Jeffrey Wagner, is chef at Calas Bistro after years at Brigtsen's Restaurant.
But his biggest contribution was developing offbeat recipes for Calas Bistro's namesake dish. In 19th century New Orleans, these fried rice cakes were as common as beignets. They were a breakfast food made from the rice leftover from the previous night's dinner and served with powdered sugar or syrup. They have fallen so far out of fashion in the last few decades, however, that they practically went extinct. Calas Bistro serves a sweet version for dessert, but Brigtsen also created a few savory versions made with shrimp, sausage or red beans.
"After being at the Fair Grounds for 15 years, we feel very close to the culture of the city and we think our place showcases some of that," says Krantz. "We think that will be our calling card."