Waiting more than an hour for a table should be indication enough that the New Orleans restaurant scene is robust once more. But there is further evidence in the recent openings of some high-profile dining spots.
The newest is Ruth's Chris Steak House, which is opening this month adjacent to Harrah's New Orleans Hotel and Casino. The original Ruth's Chris on Broad Street was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and didn't reopen, to the disappointment of many city and community leaders. Now an international chain with 119 restaurants, it will likely mend some fences when it fires up the grill in its new upscale steakhouse, which opens onto the Fulton Street entertainment area.
Why now and why this location? "It was a chance to be on Fulton Street in the heart of downtown," said Cheryl Henry, vice president of corporate affairs for Ruth's Chris. "Our previous location has extreme sentimental value to us and the New Orleans community, and our Metairie location [in adjacent Jefferson Parish] is one of the best-selling restaurants in our system. But right now, downtown New Orleans is where we want to be."
The new Ruth's Chris will seat 180 and be staffed by 105 employees, 90% of whom formerly worked at the Broad Street restaurant, where New Orleanian Ruth Fertel started grilling steaks in butter at high temperatures in 1965. There will be al fresco dining at tables along the Fulton Street pedestrian mall and entertainment in the bar. Breakfast, lunch and dinner will be served in the space formerly occupied by Todd English's Riche, which closed in March.
New on the menu
Ruth's Chris may be the highest-profile restaurant opening in New Orleans, but there are several others. Still, the number of restaurants in the city has not returned to pre-Katrina levels.
Currently 1,371 restaurants of all types are open in New Orleans, according to the number of permits issued by the Department of Health and Hospitals. That's down from 1,882 before the hurricane, meaning about 72% are again serving food. But as more of the population returns and new people move to the city, more restaurants are opening, and business is picking up at New Orleans' venerable establishments.
"It is important to note that the recovery of the restaurant industry is continuing to outpace the return of the city's population, which is 66% of the pre-Katrina population," said Jim Funk, president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. "As more and more people return, we will see more restaurants open."
What the Crescent City has, said Funk, "is a vibrant, innovative culinary spirit, which makes this city a great laboratory for young chefs. We've also got restaurants that have been in operation for more than 100 years."
Among the city's newest and brightest stars is Hostel New Orleans, which is more upscale than its name suggests. It opened on Decatur Street in the French Quarter last January, and business has been very good, according to owner Remi De Matteo.
"We decided to bring a new experience not only to the French Quarter but to New Orleans," said De Matteo, who describes the ambience of the restaurant as "ultralounge meets fine dining" and its motto as "deep music and intense cuisine."
"We are really trying to blur the line between the cocktail and dining experience to make it a full sensory experience. We are constantly pushing the envelope when it comes to our cuisine, modern fusion with classical French and Italian roots."
Entrees include the Drunken Pig, a French-cut pork chop with a Drambuie glaze, bourbon-infused mashed potatoes and smothered Napa cabbage. Another favorite is the Stacked Duck, a grilled duck breast with a mille-feuille of crispy potatoes, warm rillette and caramelized onions with a port reduction.
How does the future look in New Orleans? De Matteo is bullish. "There was a little bit of a shake-up after Katrina, but the dust has settled," he said. "There are some great new restaurants with younger chefs taking some steps toward bolder cuisine. I think the trend will continue. The old establishments will do well, as they always have, but I think there is room for some young upstarts to carve out a nice little niche, in which case we will fit right in."
Cajun cooking redux
Another new restaurant that is drawing residents and visitors in droves is Cochon on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Arts and Warehouse District. Chef/owner Donald Link and partner Stephen Stryjewski's Cajun restaurant was nominated as Best New Restaurant in 2007 by the James Beard Foundation, a world-renowned culinary organization. It was No. 3 on Frank Bruni's list of the top 10 best new restaurants in the U.S. in the New York Times in March.
Link grew up in Cajun country and brought his love for that region's cuisine to New Orleans, where he and Stryjewski embrace old-style traditions such as receiving whole pigs and overseeing an in-house boucherie that creates boudin, andouille, smoked bacon and head cheese.
With a name like Cochon (French for pig) you'd expect pork to be featured, and it is. Appetizers include spicy, grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickles and pork cheeks with cornbread bean cake and mustard cream. Entrees include Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage and cracklins.
But there is so much more: the wood-fired oyster roast, oven-roasted gulf fish served "fisherman's style" -- with the scales on -- and rabbit and dumplings. Other favorites are handmade crawfish pies and spoon bread with okra and tomatoes.
Housed in a rustic, warehouse-style building with concrete floors, high ceilings and an etched-steel bar, the restaurant has an open kitchen with a "chef's counter" that offers curious diners a view of the wood-fired oven. The main dining room's wooden tables and chairs, handcrafted by a local artisan, give it the look and feel of an upscale barbecue joint.
Another new restaurant getting raves in the Arts and Warehouse District is the Creole Skillet, opened last year by husband-and-wife team Trent and Betsy Rapps. Bold paintings and wall murals by Federico Salas -- an artist from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, who's now settled in New Orleans -- surround diners who have been packing the white-tablecloth restaurant.
Favorite entrees are Mama K's Crabmeat Cheesecake, lump crabmeat cooked in a savory cheesecake with roasted garlic, artichokes and baby spinach; and Duck and Andouille, a boneless duck breast stuffed with andouille sausage and glazed with Creole mustard.
Old reliables still serving
A recent visit to several of the city's long-established restaurants proved that business and the food are as good as ever.
Arnaud's on Bienville Street in the French Quarter has been around for 80 years and just seems to improve with age. Its decadent Sunday Jazz Brunch is not to be missed, nor is its remoulade sauce. The restaurant's signature dish, Shrimp Arnaud, Gulf shrimp marinated in the restaurant's own tangy Creole Remoulade, is worth every calorie.
Dining beneath the crystal chandeliers in the elegant open dining room led one of my dining partners recently to recall his last trip to Paris. Add the music of a wandering jazz trio and the experience is magical.
Competing for the Sunday brunch crowd is venerable Brennan's on Royal Street in the French Quarter, where breakfast is king but sumptuous feasts are served all day long. You can dine outside in the shady, romantic courtyard or, if you are with a crowd, reserve a room upstairs where you can view Mardi Gras posters dating back nearly to the city's first Lenten bash. If you are there for brunch, the classic starter is the Creole milk punch, but watch out for the kick. Hollandaise sauce is ladled over crabmeat omelets or Eggs Housarde, a Brennan's original. Don't skip dessert, even if you are there for breakfast. The Bananas Foster is legendary, and it is an original Brennan's recipe, too.
If it's Friday around noon, there is no better place to be in New Orleans than Galatoire's on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, where the who's who of the Big Easy lunch and network, often late into the afternoon.
Crab dishes are the specialty of the house, but the house is picky about its crab. When we were last there the crab didn't meet house standards and was not served. We sampled the crawfish and shrimp lunch entrees instead, and we were not disappointed.
The Friday lunch crowd is noisy, but it is definitely an experience not to be missed if you can get a table in the first-floor dining room, which dates to the early 1900s.
Commander's Palace, a fixture in the Garden District since 1880, underwent a $6 million renovation before reopening after Katrina. It's still drawing crowds for its elegant ambience and classic meals such as chef Tory McPhail's Creole Favorite: turtle soup spiked with sherry, Creole-spiced Gulf fish served over boiled vegetables and bread pudding souffle for dessert.
While Besh Steak House isn't particularly new or old, it is operated by noted chef John Besh. The menu contains Besh's take on traditional steakhouse fare: thick, juicy cuts of dry-aged beef cooked to perfection. But you'll also find several traditional New Orleans dishes on the menu as well as some interesting seafood entrees. If you're frequenting Harrah's casino, you can't miss it, nestled amid the slot machines. It's worth a visit as well to admire the work of "Blue Dog" artist George Rodrigue.