The New Orleans 2018 Food Scene in Review
This year brought some sad farewells alongside exciting expansions.
A year in the life of New Orleans’ culinary scene is a lifetime in most ordinary cities. As the year folds in around us, I’d like to take a minute to look at 2018’s gains and losses.
Goodbyes to Greats
In May, at the esteemed age of 92, death claimed the life of Ella Brennan, grand dame of the American restaurant scene. This fall, Brennan’s daughter, Ti Martin, her niece Lally and their beloved chef, Tory McPhail, honored her life by hosting the American Culinary and Hospitality Symposium, the largest international collection of hospitality luminaries ever to gather in New Orleans – a fitting tribute to Miss Ella.
French chef Rene Bajeux also died unexpectedly in September of this year, at age 61. Beloved since his early days in New Orleans at the Windsor Court’s Grill Room, his last piece of culinary legacy remains at the Palace Café, where he mentored Richard Brennan III, Dickie’s son, in the charcuterie program he had developed there over the last several years.
The tandem deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Miami celebrity bar owner John LeMare sent a wake-up call to the hospitality industry in June. One month later, the newly formed Tales of the Cocktail Foundation responded with a new wellness focus at their annual alcohol-fueled event. William Grant & Sons’ opening-night party was alcohol-free, and the foundation debuted “Beyond The Bar.” Hosted at the New Orleans Athletic Club, Beyond The Bar included seminars on suicide prevention, yoga classes, and free HIV and hepatitis C testing.
Legacies Continue in Different Ways
The fall closure of the Alois J. Binder Bakery after almost a century in the Marigny caused many to ponder the future of New Orleans’ poor boy bread. Luckily, Sandy Whann’s son, William, has his heart set on continuing the Leidenheimer family tradition into the fifth generation.
Restaurant openings continued to outpace closings. Many of the losses however, were notable. The Commander’s Palace family said goodbye to Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar in August. Named to honor Ti Martin’s Aunt Adelaide, when it opened in 2003, the Swizzle Stick became an early pioneer in New Orleans’ craft cocktail movement. Without missing a beat, Ti and her team opened Picnic Provisions and Whiskey, Uptown on Magazine Street in September.
While Uptown had multiple gains this year, it also lost a favorite breakfast spot when Coulis closed in July. The breakfast trend continued to boom, however with New Orleans’ own Ruby Slipper. Established in 2008 by former petroleum engineers Jennifer and Erich Weishaupt, Ruby Slipper now boasts 10 restaurants with six New Orleans locations and satellite spots in Florida, Alabama and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Out After opening Saba on Magazine Street in May, Alon Shaya exported his New Orleans take on Israeli modern food to Denver when he opened Safta there in August. Zach Engel, named James Beard’s “Rising Star Chef of the Year” in 2017 while working with Alon at Shaya, is also exporting his Israeli-flaired food from New Orleans. Engel plans to open Galit in Chicago’s Lincoln Park next year.
Meanwhile, on Freret Street, the Halal Guys’ franchise closed, perhaps an indication of New Orleanians’ preference for local versus imported chains.
Ralph Brennan’s Café B ended a seven-year run on Metairie Road, while Katrina casualty Barrow’s Catfish, a New Orleans tradition since 1943, finally reopened on Earhart Boulevard in July.
In his recent book, “Creole Italians,” Loyola history professor Justin Nystrom extensively covered the success and influence of immigrant-owned and operated oyster saloons in early 20th-century New Orleans. The standup oyster bar at Pascal’s Manale Restaurant is a remnant of those times. Down on Decatur Street, Tujague’s Restaurant is serving raw oysters for the first time at America’s oldest standup bar there, proving that when it comes to oysters, in New Orleans at least, everything old is new again!
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.