There are many ways to sum up a year in New Orleans dining scene. Below, I'm giving you 52 of them, snapshot style, with tastes that contributed to the tale.
These dishes, and a few drinks, were part of covering a dining scene that’s long on tradition and always changing.
My other year-end columns offer different looks back at the dining scene of 2018. This one, hopefully, will have you looking forward to your next meal too.
This is a column of reflection on a year that gave plenty to explore and experience. It's not a pecking order, and these dishes are not arranged in any particular rank.
Brisket salad at Nephew’s Ristorante, 4441 W. Metairie Ave. – This oddity of a salad probably tastes familiar to fans of the Lakeview’s now-gone Tony Angello’s. So will much of the menu at the new Nephew’s, and so might the nephew himself, longtime Tony Angello’s chef Frank Catalanotto.
Cornmeal gnocchi at DTB, 8201 Oak St. – I come to DTB for Louisiana flavors that are offbeat but consistently satisfying, like these gnocchi rolled with cornmeal and ricotta like country dumplings, strewn with biter broccoli rabe and crumbled hot sausage.
Da crown king cake at Piety & Desire Chocolate, 2727 S. Broad St.- A new bean-to-bar chocolatier made a daring debut with this king cake, crowned with big bonbons, candied kumquats and bits of pink peppercorn, filled with Earl Grey tea ganache.
“Cali style” crawfish at Big EZ Seafood, 1632 Lafayette St., Gretna –Part of a small tide of Viet-Cajun crawfish to recently arrive in New Orleans, this market and po-boy shop makes the most robust example I’ve found, thickly coasted in garlic butter with a zap of citrus.
Fried chicken at Magnolia Discount, 3415 S. Carrollton Ave. – A roving analysis of gas station fried chicken - easy fare for those Carnival parade parties - led me to this particular Gert Town location of the Magnolia Discount brand. The chicken counter is an outlet of Krispy Krunchy Chicken, which can differ from site to site. This one serves a bird with an airy-crisp surface, a red pepper spice and a garlicky, well-seasoned-juice running within.
Yakamein at Riteway Soul Food, 3044 Gentilly Blvd. – For a post-Carnival story on the restorative powers of yakamein, I found a version here with an especially deep, beefy broth, big chunks of meat and tender shrimp.
Mocha frosted coffee at Coffee Science, 410 S. Broad St. – This creamy, near-dessert of a drink, a signature of the long-gone Kaldi’s, was brought back by a former Kaldi’s manager, Tom Oliver, at his own new café.
Pork sausage pizza at Echo’s Pizza, 3200 Banks St. – A wonder of a wood-oven pizza, this one has a base of cream and charred greens and fermented chiles with dollops of red sauce and herbaceous-sweet sausage.
Trifecta po-boy at Parran’s Po-boys, 3939 Veterans Blvd., Metairie,4920 Prytania St., 2321 W. Esplanade Ave., Kenner – Tracking the Uptown expansion of this classic po-boy joint, I found a cure for indecision: short versions of roast beef, meatball and shrimp po-boys, served together.
BBQ oysters at Banana Blossom, 500 Ninth St. – Jimmy Cho made a big move just down the road for his own new stand-alone Thai restaurant, bringing his global-trotting food curiosity with him. Fried oysters in a heady, garlicky sauce with crinkly-crisp roti bread counts as Thai/Creole fusion.
Rosé buttermilk cake at Jack Rose, 2031 St. Charles Ave. - Once the Caribbean Room, a thoroughly revamped, re-thought restaurant mixes a sense of decadence with modern style. So does this whole, miniature cake, with a mellow grapefruit flavor, looking like the centerpiece for a fairy wedding.
Jerk chicken rice at Bywater American Bistro, 2900 Chartres St. – Chef Nina Compton’s second restaurant, with chef Levi Raines, has been a magnet for buzz. Some of the best dishes, though, seem down to earth. Exhibit A: a rice dish with enlivening spice and a textural blend of creamy and crisp.
Crispy cauliflower at Angeline (closed) and the Elysian Bar, 2317 Burgundy St. – Sad to see Angeline close last summer, I had one last dinner at its bar in June and a final taste of this standby, with its greaseless tempura crispness and creamy-savory olivade, charged up with olives and capers. When Angeline chef Alex Harrell later turned up at the new Elysian Bar, so did this dish, and one little piece of the world was right again.
Calamari at Longway Tavern, 719 Toulouse St. – Bar food in the French Quarter took a big step up with this modern tavern set in an evocative old cottage. The calamari, filling a cazuela with briny-crisp, tart-spicy flavor, tops the list and calls for a toast.
Million dollar baby at Luvi, 5236 Tchoupitoulas St. – One of the raw bar creations at this small, seductively stylish, thorough original new Uptown restaurant, this brings tuna two ways (diced spicy raw tuna and seared, but mostly raw, tuna) artfully arrayed over cucumber, roe and soy.
Octopus and red beans at Warbucks, 3218 Magazine St. – Smoky slices of octopus over firm red beans, a bit of Mediterranean meets Louisiana. I had precisely this same dish on an elaborate tasting menu when chef Todd Pulsinelli was cooking at Restaurant August. That I could have it again while sitting at the bar of his own much more casual modern eatery neatly explains the aim of Warbucks.
Oyster steak at Dickie’s Steakhouse, 716 Iberville St. - A lesser-known cut of beef, the rich, flavorful oyster steak gets its proper due, paired at this Creole steakhouse with fried oysters for full effect and a harbinger of an evolving look at meat here.
Vegan stuffed pepper at Sweet Soulfood, 1016 N. Broad St. – Old familiar Creole soul flavors go vegan at a new eatery that also follows the quick, easy lunch counter format, for healthier meals on the go. The stuffed pepper looks the part and is satisfying in its own right.
Cali burger at Fharmacy, 2540 Banks St. – Working on the burger section of our 2018 dining guide, this tucked-away tavern convinced me with the texture, juiciness and cooked-before-your-eyes goodness that its burger belongs in any serious conversation about New Orleans’ best.
The Moon at Francesca, 515 Harrison Ave. – This new eatery brought back a sandwich of pre-Katrina vintage once served at the same address. Like the old days at Charlie’s here, the Moon is a crunchy, creamy, meaty deli tour de force on a muffuletta loaf fill.
The Flying Dutchman at Café Porche & Snobar, 1625 Baronne St. - A find during the inaugural Black Restaurant Week, this cute-as-pie café in Central City serves a po-boy packed with stuffed pepper filling (beef and shrimp) topped with fat fried shrimp.
Ferrero Rocher torte at the Appetite Repair Shop, 400 Vallette St – Whole hazelnut-chocolate candy bulbs set in caramel under a slab of chocolate, a stunningly good dessert from chef Peter Vazquez’s always unpredictable take-out deli in Algiers Point.
Hummus with lamb tongue at Saba, 5757 Magazine St. – Alon Shaya’s first restaurant on his own continues to mine the deep potential of Middle Eastern flavor. Hummus with tender, crisp-edged lamb tongue, the pop of tart pickled barberries and the crunch of almonds make varied and complete bites with each swoop of hot pita.
Country ham at Piece of Meat, 3301 Bienville St. – The sandwiches here are very good, but we already have plenty of spots for sandwiches. The highest contribution of Piece of Meat so far is as a modern neighborhood butchery shop, one that’s become a clubhouse for people who are serious about great meat. The ham, smoky, salty, lusciously fatty, can stand alone as true Southern charcuterie.
Grilled redfish at Morrow’s, 2438 St. Claude Ave. – One of the New Orleans dishes on a menu mixing up Korean flavors and Louisiana standards, with char-marked edges and a chunky crawfish-studded Creole sauce.
Fried oysters at Cru, 234 Loyola Ave. – The raw bar at the new Pythian Market food hall tops its oysters with finely-diced raw tuna and salty local caviar. Look for Cru to open a its own restaurant in the former home of Feelings Café on New Year’s Eve.
Wedding cake cupcake at Swiss Confectionary, 3700 Orleans Ave. – The bakery behind countless special cakes for New Orleans (including my own wedding) relocated to Mid-City this summer. A snack-sized bite from the retail case was enough to bring back frosted memories.
Pina Maya at El Fogon, 4726 Veterans Blvd. – Inside a one-time Taco Tico location, now a traditional, family-run Mexican restaurant, a halved pineapple is the sweet, charred shell for a mixed grill of seafood, meats and vegetables.
Chaat bowl at Small Mart, 1303 Decatur St. – The French Quarter needs its hole-in-wall joints. When I’m nearby, I need this mix of crispy pakoras and samosas, smothered with chutney, for some affordable, quick street food.
Ube ice cream at Sweet Handkraft, 3363 Severn Ave., Metairie – The purple ice cream is vivid, the flavor is mellow (and a little like sweet potato pie). Wrap it in a break-apart waffle bubble cone, topped with cereal and you have a captivating dessert from this modern sweets emporium.
Crab Louie salad at Desi Vega Seafood and Prime Steaks, 111 Veterans Blvd. – This classic array of cool fresh flavors, just filling enough on a warm day, is part of a new expansion for a restaurateur better known for steak
Buffalo oysters at Felix’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar, 7400 Lakeshore Blvd. – A famous name from the French Quarter now has an outpost on the lakefront too. Of course oysters are the calling card – raw and cooked many ways, including this spicy, tangy, buttery personal pick.
Smoked wings at Blue Oak BBQ – after Blue Oak hilariously trolled Better Than Ezra during their Jazz Fest set (a towed air banner read “BLUEOAKBBQ IS BETTER THAN EZRA”) I was powerless to resist another visit to get the best smoked wings in New Orleans.
Seared tuna at Bar Frances, 4525 Freret St. – One example of how chef Marcus Woodham has improved this modern bistro: seared tuna, sliced and splayed like a staircase, with sections of citrus resting on the steps and grilled green eggplant and fresh field peas underneath.
Ceviche at Elysian Seafood, 801 Magazine St. – When the food hall Auction House Market opened downtown, it meant a second location for this always impressive seafood counter and oyster bar. Coconut milk, jalapeno and mint bring this ceviche into a refreshing harmony of flavor.
Nicky Lew’s roast beef at Clesi’s Restaurant & Catering, 4323 Bienville St. – Clesi’s built its name on boils, catering crawfish around New Orleans. This year it opened its own home in Mid-City with a bigger menu of Louisiana comfort food, like this dose of classic pot cooking on French bread.
Crab boil fried chicken at Picnic Provisions & Whiskey, 741 State St. – Meld two local obsessions, fried chicken and boiled seafood, and you get this spicy, crunchy, utterly distinctive plate (or take-out box) of chicken from this casual offshoot from the Commander's Palace team.
Miss Hilda old fashioned at Mandina’s, 3800 Canal St. – For a story exploring the nostalgic pull of a classic cocktail, I learned why Mandina’s version will never change. It’s made with a floater of rum, because that’s how the late Miss Hilda Mandina always made hers after a shift at the family restaurant. Cheers to that.
Atlantic salmon at Aki, 510 N. Florida St., Covington – Chef Oui’s year-old sushi bar excels at balancing the pristine and robust, as with this full-plate spread of gorgeously striped fish with a wash of ponzu and a whiff of truffle oil.
Seafood stuffed eggplant at Brigtsen’s, 723 Dante St. - Exploring summer survival for restaurants showed how important the Coolinary program has become. No restaurant does it better than Brigtsen’s, and Creole dishes like this tower of shrimp and eggplant and lemon parmesan redefine dining deals for guests.
Spaghetti with clams at Leonardo’s Trattoria, 2625 Florida St., Mandeville – Garlicky and briny, a well-done edition of a hard-to-find dish in these parts that I was grateful to find at a bustling Mandeville strip mall eatery.
Mombacho nachos at NOLA Nica, 201 St. Charles Ave. – Fried plantains are the chips, smothered with chorizo, salsa, creamy sauce at this Nicaraguan eatery, part of a wave of new vendors rejuvenating the old-school Place St. Charles food court.
Chicken and andouille po-boy at Fireman Mike’s Café & Sweet Shop, 203 Harrison Ave. – A bit of hearty bayou-style flavor at longtime Jazz Fest food vendor’s own eatery, with fried chicken under a peppery, smoky, chunky sausage gravy.
Hot fried quail at Toups’ Meatery, 845 N. Carrollton Ave. – Reading chef Isaac Toups’ new cookbook “Chasing the Gator” sent me running to his first restaurant, where the fried chicken style Nashville made famous gets a Cajun redo with spicy-hot quail.
Chicken and dumplings at Gris Gris, 1800 Magazine St. – A bowl of hearty rustic goodness with the bright crunch of carrots, just enough pepper and toast you’ll need to sop it all, served in Eric Cook's new restaurant in the former Square Root tasting menu kitchen.
Bread pudding ice cream sandwich at Mahony’s, 901 Iberville St. – The new French Quarter location of Mahony’s has an expanded menu and a playful streak; the bananas Foster ice cream sandwiched by bread pudding.
Cheeseburger at Lakeview Harbor, 8550 Pontchartrain Blvd. – When it lost its lease after 25 years on Harrison Avenue, Lakeview Harbor spent only a few months in limbo before returning, this time near an actual harbor at the lakefront. The setting is new, the burgers are the same.
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