Out in California, when Donald “Chef D” Smith served the flavors of his native New Orleans it was a change of pace for his customers. It brought the curious through his doors.
Now that he’s back home in New Orleans, the same cooking has a more important job to do.
At his Chef D’z Café, Smith and his family serve the familiar, foundational food of their city. In the process, they’re showing why that foundation matters and should be constantly refreshed.
Chef D’z kind of cooking is supposedly everywhere around New Orleans. But in reality finding new examples that are carefully done and still everyday-accessible has become harder. When someone puts the pieces together like Chef D, it’s time to take note.
Of course we start with the gumbo, which is Creole gumbo. The roux is both thin and loaded. There’s crawfish but no oysters, per the chef’s own preference, and there’s more crabmeat in this gumbo than any other in my recent memory.
Monday’s red beans and rice lunch special fills half the table. Meaty, well-seasoned beans hold the center, fried chicken is on the side and two small dishes are in orbit, one with vegetables, another with cornbread sweet enough to double as dessert. This is an every-man-a-king kind of meal for $10.
Look around the room. Check out the mural of Mardi Gras Indians and second-line strutters, flambeaux and parade floats. Listen to the people talking about the food or talking back to the reality shows on the dining room TV. Then decide that the cornbread wasn’t dessert after all and order the bread pudding or the red velvet cake. Where else in the world could you be but New Orleans?
Chef D’z Café opened in Mid-City near the new hospitals and the old criminal courthouse last fall. The chef’s story goes back much farther.
Smith grew up on the West Bank. He eventually went to culinary school, but his first love for cooking was set by his mother, Doris (she’s the Mama D at Chef D’z).
Raising her son on her own, she wasn’t always home to cook. But she would call from her office job and guide the young boy through the steps for fixing a meal. Think of a latchkey kid with a slotted spoon and a saucepan.
Smith later worked at New Orleans hotels and restaurants and at the convention center, but he still feels the early stirrings that set his path.
“Your food is your gift,” Smith told me. “When you’re able to share that with someone it means you’re feeding people and feeding their souls.”
He spent some years in Oakland and started a couple of different restaurants, always serving New Orleans dishes. Back home he tried out a few locations — first in Gretna, then Gentilly — before landing on Broad Street last fall, near a growing cluster of new and different eateries.
The restaurant is a joint. It is small and low-slung. The dishes are generous and good values. You can get a $2 breakfast here, though lunch (til 5 p.m.) is when the true specialties come out.
Not everything is familiar. For instance, I never thought I’d see a lobster salad sandwich on Broad Street. Don’t confuse this one with a lobster roll, the staple of Northeast seafood shacks and more modern seafood menus. This is more like tuna salad, with small, mayo-drenched bits of lobster that give a sweet, creamy, salty flavor, stacked club sandwich style between three levels of toast.
The bon temps roll is another Chef D creation that this time feels more Creole. It looks like a giant egg roll and oozes a mellow melted cheese blend laden with crabmeat, crawfish and chicken, with spinach to break up the richness. If this restaurant had a walk-up window, bon temps rolls would be prime street food.
The catfish Orleans is the kind of dish that on paper sounds Creole-Italian but in practice is just straight-up casual Creole classic. The catfish is blackened, and there’s so much shrimp, crawfish and crabmeat in the cream sauce that the fettuccine under it could stand alone as its own seafood pasta entrée.
Chef D’z also makes a fine sit-down yaka mein. Its brassy broth bulges with boiled egg and hunks of top round beef. A whiff of the aroma alone feels restorative.
This is the kind of food you get when New Orleans flavor is not a concept but a given, a way of life. As the city's food scene grows evermore modern and varied, a new addition with roots as deep as Chef D'z serves as a reminder to never take it for granted.
424 S. Broad St., 504-265-8091
Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Prices: appetizers $3-$9; sandwiches and entrees $7-$19; lunch specials $10 ($11 Fridays)
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