Table Talk: Tucked Away

Fine dining in the neighborhoods

JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS, TOP

As someone who gets asked for “convenient” restaurant recommendations by visitors slated to stay, sans car rental, in hotels downtown, I dutifully oblige. And to be sure, there are plenty of good options within striking distance of the French Quarter and CBD. But my guilty secret is that some of the best restaurants in the city are tucked away in residential neighborhoods far off the plainly marked tourist path. Here is a quick look at three such places Uptown.

Patois pulled off the neat trick of feeling established from the get-go. Opened in 2007, it melded quickly into the neighborhood. Owners Leon Touzet and his brother Pierre bought the former Nardo’s after Hurricane Katrina and transformed it into a restaurant that has become a definitive example of the post-Katrina restaurant resurgence.

“I’d bought my house around the corner about a year before,” says owner Leon Touzet. “After talking with my good friend Aaron Burgau and learning that he wanted to do something special, we decided to make a go of it.”

They blew out the interior and installed large plate-glass windows in the front and side, got rid of the 8-foot -high ceilings, transforming the dark space into one that’s simultaneously cheerful and elegant.

The location informs the menu to some degree. “When you’re in a nice secluded neighborhood you aren’t really subject to a lot of the trends of dining,” says Leon. “Even when things slow down over the summer, you still have your base clientele within a couple of blocks.” Being integral to a neighborhood has another advantage. “We had some flooding a few years back and people just pulled up their pants and waded over.”

Chef Burgau does a good job of cooking with what’s in season and local, a claim that everyone makes these days but is clearly evident here. Over the summer, his potato gnocchi got punched up with fresh ramps, crawfish tails and local edamame in a creamy mascarpone sauce. Tasty pops of grilled lamb ribs were served with a green tomato relish, and lump crab abounded.

On my last visit I was pleasantly surprised by a menu heavy on game birds and a special nod to Southern cuisine, including a winning dish of Bobwhite quail stuffed with pork belly and cornbread dressing. On the side was a spicy bourbon barbecue sauce and tangy pickled peaches. Pheasant was featured as well, their legs offering an unctuous confit. The menu offered Southern, Asian, New Orleans, Spanish and French influences, with all styles realized by what was available, ingredient-wise.

Gautreau’s is as discreet as they come. It gives almost no indication of its own existence on Soniat Street. If any place feels like a private club, this is it. Chef Sue Zemanick, who recently competed on “Top Chef Masters,” likes the reserved ambiance, a far cry from high-volume places like Commanders Palace, where she once worked.

“I think there is a lot more finesse when working in a smaller restaurant,” Zemanick (New Orleans Magazine’s “Chef of the Year” 2008) says. “Not that there’s anything wrong about the big places, but there is a lot of attention to detail here and we’re able to take more time preparing the food.”

The overall feel is conservative, but Zemanick introduces twists that contemporize the classics. Her recent appetizer of chilled lobster with tarragon vinaigrette had added snap and freshness from an English pea purée, and her main course of staid halibut got an added dimension from Herbsaint in the beurre blanc.

Her menu demonstrates a fondness for seafood. There always seems to be a new presentation of scallops in the appetizers, while half of the main courses on my last visit featured finfish. “I love snapper, which we can get here easily, but when sourcing allows it I really love fresh turbot from Europe,” Zemanick says. Going into fall, Zemanick expects to dip into her Eastern European roots and include some of her favorite comfort foods, such as pierogies. “I get excited for fall,” she says. “I can start using those warmer root vegetables and braised meats.”

The considerable wine list is augmented by an impressive list of single malt scotches and single barrel bourbons, and carefully considered libations are paired with the dessert offerings. Try tackling the caramelized banana split, muscled up with banana bread, toasted walnuts and butterscotch – it’s big enough for two.

When Chef Kevin Vizard decamped from the lobby of a St. Charles Avenue hotel to Vizard’s, his eponymous vine-covered hideaway on Magazine Street back in 2008, it wasn’t too much of a surprise. He is a talented chef who has made a habit of moving around. Perhaps the surprise here is that he’s ensconced in the same spot three years later. I hope he sticks around – the food is very good and the feel is comfortable, and his front-of-house staff is reliably top-notch.

An appetizer of barbecue shrimp and crab fingers comes in a decadent stew of butter, Abita Amber and simmered garlic, perfect for mopping up with the offered bread. His Crabmeat Nelson features a stack of eggplant, crabmeat and crimini mushrooms smothered in a béarnaise sauce. Roast chicken, a dish that’s often disappointing, is consistently good here, and local classics such as fish Amandine laved in a nutty lemon beurre noisette are well represented, too. But make reservations before showing up at the door – the room is small and guests are regulars and tend to linger. It is all part of the neighborhood feel.

In the ’Hood
Fine dining aside, there are plenty of neighborhood spots that offer a more affordable way to indulge. Tartine is an excellent sandwich and bake shop catering to the underserved neighborhood at the foot of Broadway Street near Uptown Square – try the pork rillette on a baguette. Surrey’s Juice Bar on lower Magazine Street is terrific as well and a good value to boot. They recently added a new location further up next to Le Bon Temps bar.

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