During a recent trip back to my hometown, New Orleans, I had the chance to check out a fantastic new restaurant from New Orleans' celebrity chef, John Besh. Building his legacy in New Orleans, John Besh is responsible for the award-winning Restaurant August, Luke, La Provence, Besh Steak, The American Sector and Domenica. Besh has been recognized with a multitude of honors including the most recent honor of the 2009 Food Arts' Silver Spoon award for revitalizing the culinary legacy of New Orleans. Besh has been nominated for a James Beard award for his new cook book, "My New Orleans", but this isn't Besh's first recognition from James Beard being that he won the James Beard Foundation honor as "Best Chef of the Southeast" in 2006. You can see him from time to time on The Food Network and often on the Today Show.
With all of this hype behind this chef's name, my expectations for my experience at Domenica were very high. Not only did my husband and I have our first John Besh restaurant experience, but we were also experiencing for the first time the newly renovated historic Roosevelt Hotel, a part of the Waldorf Astoria Collection. Opened in 1893 with a different name, The Roosevelt had 40 historic years in the early 1900's in New Orleans known as one of the most luxurious hotels in the South. Located on the edge of the French Quarter, The Roosevelt was home to the legendary Blue Room and The Sazerac Bar, places where popular musicians played. This was the place to see and be seen whether you were the average Joe wanting to enjoy a cocktail and hear some jazz or if you were a famed politician like Huey P. Long. Everyone wanted to be a part of the romance and the scene of The Roosevelt Hotel. The Roosevelt changed to the Fairmont Hotel, which still maintained the elegance and romance of the original hotel but the Fairmont closed in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. At that point, the century-old hotel was bought and fully renovated to capture all of the glory that was once The Roosevelt. Now, reopened and back to the old name, The Roosevelt Hotel is utterly magnificent and certainly the picture of luxury in the heart of New Orleans.
I visited the hotel when it was the Fairmont with my family for New Year's Eve at the Sazerac. I always remember how the Fairmont went above and beyond during the holidays with grand halls filled with Christmas lights and decor. When I visited with my husband last Christmas (2009), I was blown away by the elegance of not only the renovation but also the continuance of the tradition of decorating to the nines for the holidays. The tasteful but extravagant decor made you feel like you were in a winter wonderland. We poked our heads into the legendary Sazerac Bar to see what changes had been made before we found Domenica within the hotel, our place to dine for the evening.
Walking into the gorgeous Domenica with so many natural touches of wood and natural elements, we wished we had made a reservation. However, we were able to get a table in the bar area, which was fine since we had front row seats to view the garde manger chef's skill and artfulness in his preparation of Charcuterie. We watched him assemble multiple boards covered with fresh-cut meats like Prosciutto, Coppa, Bresaola, Soppresatta, and house made Salami. My husband and I sat down in the bar area dazzled by the menu that immediately sent us back to the dinners we enjoyed in Italy with items like the Antipasti plate of "Bresaola-cured beef with arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano", one of the appetizers we sampled, and the entree of "Panned Louisiana Grass-Fed Veal-with lemon and arugula". During a special meal with my husband in Milan, we partook in an appetizer of Bresaola just like this one and a Veal Milanese, which was a pan-fried thin veal topped with lemon, arugula and tomatoes.
The "Antipasti" section of the menu allows for you to either have a small or large plate. "Meatballs with soft polenta", "Octopus Carpaccio with fennel and citrus" or "Fried Eggplant Bocconcini with goat cheese and aged balsamic", the other appetizer we enjoyed, are just some of the mouth-watering dishes available on the Antipasti menu. You can mix and match whatever imported and house cured meats and soft, hard or blue cheeses that you like from the "Salumi and Formaggi" menu. For the full affect, order the "Affettati Misti-Chef's selection of assorted salumi, imported cheeses, marinated olives and roasted vegetables".
My husband's choice the "Margherita" from the "Pizze" menu was a tough choice among other pizzas like the "Calabrese-spicy salami, mozzarella , capers and olive", the "Prosciutto-tomato, bufala mozzarella and arugula" or "Wild Mushroom with fontina, bacon and yard egg". The crust was undeniably delicious, crispy on the outside and slightly chewy inside with a robust tomato sauce and creamy fresh mozzarella cheese.
The "Primi" menu, also available in small and large plates boasts a selection of pastas that will get your palate excited just from reading the descriptions on the menu. A variety of pastas are offered such as "Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi-almonds, prosciutto, and brown butter", "Risotto-white truffle and pancetta", "Totelloni Di Zucca-butternut squash, sage and parmigiano", or "Stracci-torn pasta, oxtail ragu and fried chicken livers". Classic pasta dishes like "Lasagne Bolognese" and "Spaghetti-olive oil, garlic and parmigiano" star on this menu as well. I opted for the "Tagliatelle-rabbit ragu, porcini mushrooms", which upon ordering our waiter commented that we had made fine choices, always a nice touch to make you feel like you, the diner, has the ability to pick out the best item on the menu.
After we ordered and picked out a lovely bottle of Chianti to sip, we had some time to take in the atmosphere at Domenica. Domenica pulls off a rustic, Italian dining room while retaining a chic, modern feel. Touches like bare-wood tables, paper menus as placemats, and glasses filled with 2-foot long breadsticks bring a casual vibe but pendant lighting, colorful abstract art, and clean lines capture a modern elegance, which is just the right fit for the dining scene within the newly-renovated Roosevelt Hotel. While getting started on that bottle of Chianti, we were first graced with the "Bresaola-cured beef with arugula and parmigiani reggiano", an authentic Italian Antipasti dish that never ceases to satisfy. Before we had time to examine the beauty of the Bresaola, the "Fried Eggplant Bocconcini" appeared before us. These two appetizers were the perfect compliment to our Chianti. Soon after we completed the Antipasti, our main courses of "Pizze Margherita" and "Tagliatelle-rabbit ragu, porcini mushrooms" came from the kitchen. My husband was perfectly happy with his pizza while I was overwhelmed with the sinful deliciousness of my tagliatelle. The pasta was like butter, cooked to perfection coated lightly with the sauce of the rabbit ragu. The bites of rabbit were tender and flavorful, which paired flawlessly with the porcini mushrooms. Needless to say, there was not an ounce left on our plates.
If only we had the appetite to sample even more from this beautiful menu like the "Pesce" options of "Whole Grilled Redfish-lemon, herbs and bread crumbs" or the "Fritto Misto of shrimp, calamari, crab and vegetables". The "Carne" menu looked enticing with "Involtini Di Pollo-prosciutto and parmigiano stuffed chicken" and "Roasted Pork Shoulder-borlotti beans, basil and honey". Speaking of honey, next time we are at Domenica's, we must try something sweet from the "Dolci menu", perhaps the "Ricotta Cheese Cake-local citrus and pistachio", "Frittole Di Fragole-strawberry and ricotta fritters with moscato zabaione" or the "Panna Cotta-blood oranges, rosemary olive oil biscotti". With so many interesting dishes, it is hard for me to not want to tell you about all of them, but you will just have to check out this fine establishment from John Besh for yourself. A reservation is helpful; or you can wing it like I did and end up at a lovely table for two in the bar area with a view of the entire restaurant. With full stomachs and the feeling of being transported to Italy, my husband and I were fueled to wonder around the romantic French Quarter until the wee hours.
Domenica-a Chef John Besh Restaurant
123 Baronne Street
New Orleans, LA 70130