In the days after Hurricane Katrina ripped into New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, shutting down nearly every restaurant in the French Quarter, chef Scott Boswell knew that getting his diner, Stanley, up and running was crucial to bringing the city back to life.
“Two weeks after Katrina I got a military pass to get into the Quarter,” says Boswell. “My staff was scattered all over the country, and I had no payroll records and no cash flow. My mother came to help out and a sous-chef and his girlfriend came back. We went to a local grocery for provisions and started selling a hamburger, potato chips, pickle and a drink for five bucks. We put tables outside, my mom insisted we put flowers on the tables and there were lines to get in.
We served 128 people that first day, and got media attention from all over -- newspapers, CNN, even Japanese TV. By week’s end we were serving 500 people a day.”
Stanley was the first restaurant that re-opened in the Quarter. Now, five years later, New Orleans actually has more restaurants than before the hurricane.
On the basis of two trips to the city in the last six months, I can attest that restaurants are packed every night, from old-timers Brennan’s and Galatoire’s to newcomers like Dominique’s and Domenica.
Boswell relocated Stanley to Jackson Square, where in addition to those redemptive burgers, he serves terrific gumbos, eggs Benedict and po’ boy sandwiches. At the same time, after eight months of renovation, he re-opened his fine dining restaurant Stella! (like Stanley, inspired by Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”), which is emblematic of just how vibrant and forward thinking the Crescent City’s food scene has become.
While most of the city’s restaurants are still devoted to beloved but entrenched Creole culinary traditions, Stella! has moved into modern haute cuisine, but without the haughtiness.
Boswell calls his food “global,” based on his cooking stints at restaurants in France, Italy and Japan, all filtered through a generous Southern sensibility. By New Orleans standards, Stella! is not cheap, with entrees ranging from $31- $43, and a separate “international caviar menu” that offers two ounces of paddlefish roe for $100 and 50 grams of “Royal Osetra” for $300.
Stella’s decor, once quaintly casual, is now among the most elegant in New Orleans. You enter through a cobblestone courtyard into a dining room with beamed ceilings, gold and silver wallpaper, big, vanilla-colored tufted upholstered chairs, crystal chandeliers and an antique, marble-covered table set with a magnificent display of flowers.
The place is as effusively romantic as any restaurant in the city, with plenty of guys popping the question over dessert, and where both locals and tourists tend to dress up for the occasion.
Boswell’s culinary ideas are complex yet beautifully conceived. Many components both buoy and complement the main ingredients, evident in a dish like his roasted potato and parmesan gnocchi with fennel fronds, grilled corn, maitake mushrooms, duck prosciutto, broccoli florets, scallions and lemon zest ($18).
What at first seems a betrayal of the simplicity of Italian pastas, emerges as a canny marriage of smoky, tangy and green flavors with crisp textures.
Fat Louisiana Gulf shrimp are melded with risotto, laced with hot andouille sausage, caramelized shiitake mushrooms, peas and scallions ($16), a wonderfully tasty dish despite the rice being overcooked one night.
Duck x Five
An entree called “Duck Five Ways” ($37) is a tour de force of duck breast dusted with Sichuan pepper, lacquered leg and thigh, mu-shu stir fry in a Chinese pancake, duck miso broth, and crispy duck foie gras wontons with a cassis reduction. The dish ups the ante on traditional Peking duck by multiplying the variations.
Boswell, along with chef de cuisine Carlos Briceno, use as many local ingredients and techniques as possible, as in their crisp meaty breast of Palmetto squab, served with braised collard greens, skillet cornbread, oyster dressing and a Madeira jus ($36).
This is also where I had two splendid desserts. An old-fashioned German chocolate cake was brought happily into the 21st century, rich with toasted coconut and pecan ganache with caramel sauce, plus milk chocolate mousse made in seconds with freezing liquid nitrogen.
The other dessert is a masterpiece of sheer decadence -- a grilled cheese sandwich made with a triple creme Delice de Bourgogne and a dark chocolate ganache in brioche bread fried in clarified butter and lashed with wild huckleberry sauce.
The 500-label wine list, overseen by sommelier John Mitchell, is exceptionally well balanced with New and Old World selections and rare vintages, though I’d like to see more bottles under $50.
It is a winning formula for a chef to be able to make great burgers and po’ boys while also serving up some of the most sophisticated cuisine. In a city where food is a religion, Boswell delivers restorative effects on body and soul. Rating: ***
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Main courses $31-$43.
Sound Level: Very comfortable for conversation.
Date Place: Absolutely.
Inside Tip: The seven-course menu at $125 is really a
good deal, with wines, add $95.
Special Feature: An extensive caviar menu.
Will I be back: Yes.
Stella! is at 1032 Chartres Street. Information: +1-504-587-0091 or http://www.restaurantstella.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)