On the eve of the opening of his new Saint John restaurant, chef Eric Cook was thrilled.
He developed the French Quarter spot as a showcase for deep Creole flavor, and the menu he and chef Darren Porretto put together was ready to go.
The old Decatur Street building that Cook took over, housing a succession of previous restaurants, looked more like its own space after a renovation. Neighbors and tourists were already peeking out the windows and trying out the front door.
Above all, Cook was excited about a fresh start, despite the growing difficulties his industry continues to face. Or, in a way, because of them.
“I’ve had people tell me you grow too fast, but I mean, when’s a good time to open a restaurant in New Orleans?” Cook said. “We have wanted to do this for a long time. And if we can get through that these days, we can get over it. “
Saint John officially opens on October 6, after a few tries.
Cook is a New Orleans native and Marine Corps veteran who has worked at local restaurants since leaving the military. He eventually opened his own restaurant, Gris Gris in the Lower Garden District, in 2018, with an elevated interpretation of the heartwarming flavors of the South.
Saint John is more directly related to the cornerstones of Creole cuisine.
To develop their menu, Cook and Porretto pulled vintage dog-eared cookbooks from the shelves of their families’ homes and from the shelves of second-hand bookstores.
On the plate, it is played through the stew of shrimps, the courtbouillon of Gulf fish and the whole almond of fried fish. There are Creole dishes that are not commonly found in restaurants, at least not in newer restaurants, like stew (made with ribs) and chicken and shrimp mackerel choux (made with thighs). of chicken).
There are oven-stuffed crabs, turkey necks smothered in brown gravy, and the iconic Saint John oysters, which bring them three ways: poached in cream, deep-fried, and made into oyster dressing for a steal- au-vent, a version of the local Thanksgiving table staple.
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Lunch mixes with some sandwiches, including the shrimp boat – a Leidenheimer bread with fried shrimp, marinated okra, and shrimp butter. Brunch brings dishes like Sardou oysters, crab omelets and French toast (see the full menu here).
The restaurant at 1117 Decatur St. is best known for its long history as the Italian restaurant Maximo’s. It’s been empty from the last restaurant here, another Italian restaurant called La Mensa, which closed in early 2020.
As always, the most striking design feature is the open kitchen with a breakfast bar, giving people a direct view of the food being prepared. A spiral staircase leads to a dining room on the second floor and a balcony with tables overlooking Decatur Street.
The ground floor is an adjoining space, running from the bar to the kitchen and dining room to the rear. But Cook sees them as different realms. The bar is for a walk-in, a beer and a bite to eat. Out back it’s a place to really dig and dine.
“It’s the church and the state,” Cook said. “In advance, the bar is the state. Back here near the kitchen in the cabins, it’s the church.
As the Saint John team prepared to open, there was a sense of renewal throughout the space. Cook and Porretto proudly show off all the ways they make it their own, from the layout of the open kitchen to the art around the walls.
Many of these works are by Jeremy Hebert and Reverend Varg Vargas, the two artists behind neighboring studio Deurty Boys.
One of the centerpieces is a found object work by Vargas, a detailed account of tributes to influential chefs and hospitality friends who have passed away.
Cook had his own journey through New Orleans restaurants, including some training time at Commander’s Palace. Porretto also cooked in the Garden District landmark, and the chefs talk about it like it’s their old school, a bond in common.
Saint John was scheduled to open in mid-September. Hurricane Ida pushed this back a few weeks. Gris Gris suffered some damage in the storm but was able to reopen three weeks later
Like all restaurants affected by the storm, the loss of inventory and business was costly. But Cook sees a bright side now that the city is moving forward.
At Gris Gris, he has seen customers return with renewed gratitude and appreciation for hospitality. He hopes this serves as a sort of reset after the angst evident in the hospitality industry throughout the summer, as staff, customers and operators navigate shifting protocols to keep guests safe. people and doors opened through the surge of the delta.
“If it feels like people can see we’re more in the same boat now,” Cook said. “Maybe the storm made it more visible, more tangible to people.”
1117, rue Decatur, (504) 581-8120
Lunch and dinner Wed-Sun, brunch Sat, Sun (11 am-4pm)
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