When Donald "Chef D" Smith returned home to New Orleans a couple of years ago, he wanted to open a restaurant that spoke to the food he ate while growing up in the city. Smith had plenty of experience doing that, having opened and run several restaurants in Oakland, California that specialized in the New Orleans-style home cooking of his mother.
Last year, after opening and closing restaurants in Gentilly and on the West Bank, Smith and his mother found a building on S. Broad Street to open Chef D'z Cafe.
At first glance, the restaurant's menu reads like those of many traditional New Orleans eateries. There are fried oyster po-boys and bowls of gumbo bobbing with seafood. The walls are covered in colorful murals of Mardi Gras Indians, the Rebirth Brass Band, second-line parades and the Superdome.
Smith describes his food as "old school meets new school," and that seems to fit some of the whimsical creations on the menu.
Bon Temp rolls include layers of fresh spinach, chunks of chicken, crawfish, crab dressing and pepper Jack and American cheeses rolled in a tortilla and fried until the exterior is crispy. It is cut into fat rings that ooze cheese and served with a tangy honey-mustard sauce.
The gumbo is a seafood-heavy medley made without okra, and the yakamein is about as classic a version as there is, with tender hunks of beef, thick spaghetti noodles, a hard-boiled egg and a generous shower of scallions in a salty and delicious broth.
Just glancing at some of Smith's generous portions can make a diner feel full. A large crab cake po-boy features four patties slathered with mayonnaise and dressed with thick slices of beefsteak tomato and pickles on French bread. The sandwich is big enough for two to share. The french fries that accompany it need seasoning. Fettuccine is topped with a creamy herb and Parmesan sauce and wedges of blackened chicken strips carry a slow heat that creeps up and leaves a lingering soft burn.
Chicken wings are available in 12 styles, and arrived crispy skinned with juicy, dark meat. A garlic-Parmesan version is lacquered in a savory, tangy gloss flecked with herbs, and there is plenty of garlic flavor and sharp, nutty notes from the cheese.
There is a familiar lineup of desserts, including a comforting sweet peach cobbler and decadent bread pudding with rum-soaked raisins and plump clouds of custardy bread swimming in a buttery swamp of caramel.
These dishes are a reminder of Smith's culinary trajectory, punctuated with creative sidesteps that speak to his tenure at restaurants on the West Coast. In the end, they speak strongest to his homecoming and are a tribute to hometown flavors.