Desi Vega's Seafood and Prime Steaks

Dozen Best New Or Reopened Restaurants In 2018

The Food Show with Tom Fitzmorris
December 16, 2018 - 2:45 am
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It may be the happiest season of all, when we survey the best restaurants that appeared in New Orleans for the first time--or came back from the dead. Here is my top dozen such restaurants. The twelve best, because food comes by the dozen. And to give readers a bonus over the standard ten-best that other media outlets might lay on you.

Overall, the main theme of 2018 is the buzz that restaurants were decreasing in their number and quality. This is pure bunk. There has not been any significant abandonment of restaurants from their markets. And if you went to a lot of restaurants above the the fast food category, you know that most of them were quite busy when you got there.

As in past years, I don't limit my survey to the span from January 1 to December 31, 2018. A few restaurants here actually opened in the last months of 2017. How can one rate a restaurant that just opened? Most diners give new restaurants some leeway before judging them.

I welcome your thoughts about my list. Few people agree completely, which makes things interesting. Call me on the radio show: 3-5 p.m. weekdays, on WWL-105.3 FM-HD2 or the RADIO.COM APP- 504-260-6368. Or write me at tom@nomenu.com.

Here goes!

#1, Gris Gris. Garden District: 1800 Magazine St. 504-272-0241.

I had trouble deciding which restaurant should lead this list until I recalled another list of a few years ago. In it, I called Square Root the best restaurant in New Orleans. I knew I was going out on a limb, but not to the extent the bold chef-owner of Square Root did. Indeed, it was excellent, but proved to be too far out to survive. Still, it will always be able to claim a unique creativity, remembered forever by the local gourmets with deep pockets. That was the gris gris that spills through time to inspire the namesake restaurant. Gris Gris, the restaurant, took over Square Root's former space, and right there becomes distinctive. From a window-surrounded main dining room or a balcony on the second floor, the place feels good. The menu is much more conventional than its predecessor's, with a decided Cajun-Creole tilt. It starts with first-class fresh ingredients, and injects them with adventure. A whole redfish that surprised me on my first Gris Gris dinner lingers in my mind, as the eating just improves with every visit since.

#2: Pardo's. Mandeville: 5280 L. Hwy. 22, . 985-893-3603. 

"It makes you feel like you're Uptown," was the first comment I heard about Pardo's. That captured the place exactly then, and seems even truer now that the restaurant moved to its new Mandeville location. I had strong doubts about the new building, which looked shabby when seen from the highway. But when the new Pardo's opened in November 2018, it had been transformed into a modern, airy, spacious plant for turning out classy meals. Even my wife loves it, and she's a conoisseur of restaurant architecture. Everything that was good in the old Pardo's is here, with one exception: no pizza. That will not be missed by most of whom will recognize this as a solidly fine-dining establishment. Not pretentious--if you want a steak, fried seafood, or Caesar salad, you will find it without hauteur. But the presentations will be beautiful, and the best of the menu features a fair amount of top-class raw materials--foie gras, big sea scallops, great fresh fish, and the like. The service staff is as fine as it way in the old place. Meanwhile, owner Osman Rodas--a graduate of the Emeril and Commander's schools, among others--tours the room with lots of great wines to suggest. He speaks the language of the younger clientele that Pardo's has successfully wooed since it opened. All that keeps it from being at the top of this list is that it just reopened, and the kitchen seems not to have pulled its act completely together just yet. Which is entirely normal for restaurants this ambitious.

#3: Vyonne's. CBD: 412 Girod St. 504-518-6007.

Step One: Get past the name. They are the first names of the two owners, both of whom are interesting to talk with, as you almost certainly will. Vyoone Sygue Lewis (pronouced "vee-ahn" is a pediatric doctor and a classical musician. Zohreh Khaleghi owned the Flaming Torch until it burned a couple of years ago. She was always an artist (still is), and got into the restaurant business when her husband passed away some five years ago. The restaurant is tucked away in the fringe of the CBD, in a restored building from the 1840s. A courtyard and a long, pleasant main dining room cater a menu of French-Creole bistro dishes, emphasis on the French aspect. Mussels, charcuterie, coquille St. Jacques, steak with frites, coq au vin, bouillabaisse, onion soup, and that ilk. The Creole side brings in the shrimp, oyster, crawfish, and other seafood, seasoned to the appropriate degree. Next to Emeril's Meril, Vyoone's is not obvious, but it's a nice find.

#4: Bar Frances. Uptown: 4525 Freret St. 504-371-5043.

Across America, a renewed interest in French bistro restaurants is spreading. I seem to keep stumbling onto them--to my pleasure. I've always been a fan of the style. Its soul really is French, and since most formally-educated chefs learn about cooking largely through French examples, the cuisine is studied as much as any other fine-dining style. Bar Frances's name tells us of salient facts about the place. The will indeed make an unusually strong appeal that you have at least a glass of wine. The first half of the menu is given over to cheese and cured meat platters, salads, soups, omelettes, and other small and very French plates. That's just fine for the Millennials, who favor small plates. Lot of those on Freret street, where Bar Frances fits right in. It all adds up to a fun meal with a distinctive French quality. No lunches.

#5 Luvi. Uptown: 5236 Tchoupitoulas. 504-605-3340.

The dining room and bar occupy the amount of space you'd find in a generous pair of parlors from a shotgun double, But its kitchen turns out such an array of unique dishes that it takes a while to comprehend the menu. Although I have it in the Chinese category, there are flavors from many the Far East Asian culinary traditions. The menu itself is puzzling down to the dish names: "Snow White." "Stoplight." "Monkey Snack." "Million Dollar Baby." "Dark Forest." Asking question takes over much of your visit. But once you think you have a grip on all this, the ordering results in consecutive dishes of very intriguing eating. The service staff is very helpful, despite the puzzles, and it most ways it turns out to be accessible.

#6: Saba. Uptown: 5757 Magazine St. 504-324-7770.

The runaway success of Shaya, the Israeli restaurant from Chefs John Besh and Alon Shaya, was such that when the two men broke away from one another, it left a vacuum. When the handsome Kenton's restaurant shut down despite its very good Southern style and Magazine Street address, Besh took advantage of the opening. He opened Saba with the same general spirit Shaya's created, or so iot seemed to me. It instantly succeeded--enough that the difficulty Shaya customers always had in getting tables was repeated at Saba. Few people are accustomed to doing that for a casual ethnic restaurant, but be aware that a reservation at Saba is essential. The food is not identical to Shaya's is, but Saba's is recognizable and enjoyable. And the beautiful dining rooms, sidewalk tables, and parking lot are alluring. The Middle Eastern restaurants around town have reacted to all this and the whole category has changed a bit as a result.

#7: Desi Vega's @ 17th Street Canal. Metairie: 111 Veterans Blvd. 504-293-2490.

Just when it seems clear that we have enough steakhouses to meet the demand, another two or three--always at the top end of the price spectrum--move in. Desi Vega's is the best of 2018. After over a decade of success on St. Charles Avenue, the superb Mr. John's Steakhouse reached capacity. With no room to expand where it is, it grew branches. This is the third under Desi Vega's. The new Metairie location has a few great advantages. First, Metairie needed a high-end steakhouse other than Ruth's Chris. Second, this was where a number of good restaurants have been over the years, memorably Charley G's. It's a handsome, comfortable venue with carefully chosen beef and other cuts and chops, and a wide assortment of seafood and other eats in every department. The service staff has the feeling of a classic, old, almost New Yorky steak joint.

#8: Francesca. Lakeview: 515 W Harrison Ave. 504-266-2511. 
Scott Craig and partners--the owners of Katie's in Mid-City--bought the former Koz's (it was Charlie's Deli long before that) in Lakeview during 2018, and added to its poor boy menu an array of other specialty sandwiches. These include Cuban, Chicago-style Italian Beef, a few deli sandwiches, muffulettas , and serious hamburgers. When they were rebuilding the place, they made a great deal on a massive pizza oven, and added that to the menu. The growing restaurant community in the area didn't have much in the way of such an accomplished sandwich shop, so Francesca became a full house instantly.

#9: Copper Vine Winepub. CBD: 1001 Poydras St. 504-208-9535.

Without question, this cafe was created to appeal to the many people who work, live, and visit the CBD. It is in particular convenient to those attending events at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie Center, which can be a lot of people. The menu, design, and service are adapted to Millennial tastes. But all I can think about when I go there is that this old building was the home of the extinct Maylie's Restaurant for 110 years. It was a favorite of mine toward the end of that run. I admire the tasteful renovation the Maylie's building received to become Copper Vine Winepub. Beyond that, there are no likenesses to Maylie's. The concept here is to have a fairly large assortment of midrange wines served in a wide assortment of quantities. The menu is abbreviated, but given the elementary feel of everything here brings for local dishes that are better than one expects, if not by a wide margin. When full (which is often), it really gets loud in here.

#10: Barrow's Catfish. Carrollton: 8300 Earhart Blvd. . 504-265-8995.

For decades from 1946, Billy Barrow and his family operated the city's best fried catfish restaurant. Billy was also the impresario of his neighborhood, and raised it to a higher level than its surroundings. He was killed in an automobile accident, and Katrina brought Barrow's to an end. But it made a welcome return in mid-2018. The good news is that the new owners have Billy's catfish recipe, which was a tightly-held secret. That was not just promotion. Barrow's catfish was accurately called "popcorn fish" by an old girlfriend of mine, describing the lightness, greaselessness and flavor. Also this: the menu covers the entire casual seafood restaurant cafe spectrum. (Billy served only catfish, with potato salad on the side.) But the catfish is not quite what I remember. Still very good, and still a new place, so I expect it to improve as the days go by.

#11: Zocalo. Old Metairie: 2051 Metairie Rd. 504-570-6338.

Old Metairie has a long history of ups and downs in its restaurant population. At the moment, it seems to be on the way down, if not dramatically. Among the eateries that have escaped the trend is Zocalo, from the mind of Edgar Caro. He comes from Colombia, but practices the cuisines of Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, the the north coast of South America. Zocalo is a Mexican cantina, but refers back to the actual recipes currently or historically cooked in Mexico City. Most of the food here is very different from what you thought you ordered. This is a bit offputting, but once one starts cutting down through the meats, seafoods, and tortillas soon gets the habit. Just make sure you understand what you ordered.

#12: Half Shell Oyster House. Covington: 70367 S. Tyler St. 985/276/4500.

Born in Mobile, Alabama The Half Shell has gone from a long-running seafood house to a twelve-unite chain along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana into Florida. In 2018 came its first New Orleans area location, in Covington. The place was am immediate hit, and for months after it opened it was more likely than nor that you'd have to wait for as much as an hour for a table. Much of this success owed tothe handsome, casual dining rooms and the well-trained servers. Although it's an all-around seafood restaurant, oysters take up a lot of space on the menu. They start out with the raw bar, then glorify the grilled oysters that have becomes so popular in recent years. The oysters have been very good in my experience. I'd eat there more often were it not for the dinner crowds.

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