Filling the large shoes of a predecessor is a daunting task. History is rife, however, with sequels that equaled or surpassed the original (The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, and Aliens spring to mind).
Such is the case at Longway Tavern, where the chef who opened this newish spot to rave reviews was felled by personal issues. This had to be tragic not only for him, but for hospitality company LeBlanc + Smith which owns it along with others here (Sylvain, Meauxbar, Barrel Proof, Cavan, and Hotel Chloe).
Enter Chef Cesar Nunez, whose sophisticated, modern comfort food has created a successful second act at Longway Tavern.
A star is born.
The dishes are composed like works of art.
My initial reaction was similar to the one I had at Red Medicine in Los Angeles many years ago (where the chef’s daring and creativity made me cry like a little bitch).
Here, the plates are precious, the interpretations playful and unexpected. But, would it taste any good? I’ve been seated before beautiful plates on cruise lines that were devoid of flavor. And diners routinely dis small plates that fail to deliver value.
Home fries with dill pickle salt, spring onions, and crème fraîche—perfumed with fresh-chopped dill— were a preview for what lay ahead. Rough hewn hunks of potatoes lay in a pool of cool green sauce. They were crisp and generously seasoned. All of my protests about cutting carbs fell by the wayside as I ate one piece after another.
If you grew up in New Orleans, you were probably raised on some variation of crab claws. Here, they are prepared with the unlikely combination of grapefruit, cilantro, and green olives. The crab has to be really fresh for it to work without much fat. And it was. My dining companions squeezed them between their teeth to gently scrape the meat off while nodding approvingly.
Buttermilk grits (from Bellegarde Bakery, no less) with pumpkin marmalade and ricotta were a surprise hit, the pumpkin adding a savory and sweet note. Garnished with fresh chives, these were comfort food on another level, unlike anything your grandmother made.
The simply named cheese and “crackers” defied expectations. It didn’t look anything like what one might expect, more a mixture of soft cheese (or oatmeal!) with shavings of cheese curlicues atop. It’s aged cheddar with banana pepper aioli. When a menu lists an ingredient in quotation marks (“crackers”), expect something different. Here the crackers are like Asian-style flavored rice chips. Buttery toasted bread is also included. One guest furrowed her brow at the concoction, but the hearty flavor of the cheese and the whimsical “crackers” won me over. If you have a playful palate and are open to new interpretations, try this.
In the same vein, in another dish, calamari replaced noodles in an XO sauce topped with crushed peanuts. There’s an Asian influence across the menu. The calamari itself was extremely tender and the sauce pleasant though tame.
More full-flavored and simply stunning was the chicken liver mousse with fennel, apple, and hot sauce. Another unlikely combination and somewhat sweet, it won praise at the table. The silky mousse comes in a generous portion. Sister-restaurant Meauxbar has a similar dish on its menu that pairs chicken liver with apples.
Presumably, the hospitality company’s taste is reflected in the chef’s offerings. The squash pancake with radish, black cardamom, and cured egg yolk truly soars. The texture reminded me of banana pancakes but it had the earthiness of zucchini bread. Whatever it was, we ordered a second helping. It was the clear favorite among a half dozen foodies. Here’s a dish in which nothing is what you expect. Actually, it’s much better.
Lettuce wraps are a low-carb option that has gained widespread acceptance. But I’ve never encountered anything as as good as the pairing of butter lettuce with perfectly fried and seasoned oysters (still creamy on the inside) topped with fermented corn and cucumber salad with lardons. We ordered a second helping to share again.
The tavern’s interior is understated—chic and whimsical—like the food. There are large images from the classic movie Easy Rider juxtaposed with subtle stenciled images of ‘gators. The overall impression has a gentle patina, despite it all being new.
Weather-permitting, there’s a gorgeous patio out back of the historical home (reportedly built around 1794). On a sunny day, with a cocktail in hand, you would feel very happy here.
The menu at Longway Tavern offers a selection of small and large plates. The new chef has upheld the promise shown when the curtain went up and deserves to take a bow. Resist the temptation to dine conventionally. Grab your closet pals, order a smorgasbord, and share. Have a craft cocktail and laugh away your cares.
Longway Tavern, 719 Toulouse St. (btw. Bourbon & Royal). Bar and kitchen: Mon-Thu 4-11pm, Fri/Sat 10:30am-midnight, Sun 10:30am–11pm, all major credit cards, (504) 962-9696, www.longwaytavern.com
Charles Pizzo is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He writes recommendations, not reviews, to inform readers what to order.
Restaurateurs: Email the author to set-up a tasting.