Daniel’s offers top-notch cuisine at unbelievable prices
By Jonathan Edwards
Daniel Tobar opened his second restaurant at Tulane and Broad avenues six months before Katrina hit. After the levees broke and 80 percent of New Orleans found itself under water, his sophomore effort took on eight feet of water and killed the whole deal.
Almost three years later, Tobar is back with his newest venture, the five-week-old Daniel’s on the Bayou. Housed in the giant, Death Star apartment complex at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Moss Street, the prospect of eating at Daniel’s is a little daunting.
The Esplanade at City Park is a gated, all-in-one community protected by a black, moat-like fence surrounding the property. To eat at Daniel’s, drink at the connected Bayou Bar, or patronize the in-house hair salon, someone from the inside must buzz you in.
“It’s a little forbidding. You’re not quite sure if the restaurant and the hair salon are open to people outside the apartment complex,” said Joanna Russo, a resident of Faubourg-St. John when asked why she had yet to patronize any of the businesses inside The Esplanade.
The front-of-house manager, Gretta Mollen, plans to ramp up PR efforts to make the whole thing less mysterious, but has faith in New Orleanians’ desire for amazing food.
“We’ve gotten a huge response from the Mid-City neighborhood….This is New Orleans. If the service is great. If the food is great, you’ll find a way. The gate? Ehhh,” said Mollen with a wave of her hand.
Daniel’s had come highly recommended by Elizabeth Thompson, co-owner of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, and she gave me a step-by-step how-to on getting to the restaurant. Since I knew the protocol, it was no big deal (I hit a button and someone immediately let me in). In fact, the whole process made me feel like I was an insider, as if I were uttering some unknown password to gain access to an otherwise forbidden 1920s speakeasy. It all felt very…hush hush.
Then I stepped inside, and the whole restaurant screamed, “CHEAP!” Paper table “cloths,” teal/turquoise paint and candle centerpieces that looked like they were just purchased at a garage sale down the street. They even had the filmy sticker leftovers that, once upon a time, probably said something like “50¢.”
I initially thought the floral arrangements were fake and plastic, but unlike every other part of the décor, the flowers were beautiful and real and added a brilliant color splash to a place that, at first glance, is impressive only in the negative. After high marks from Elizabeth, I was discouraged when I first stepped into Daniel’s.
My disappointment ended as soon as I took my first bite. The “odd” atmosphere, as “fgowner” put it in his post on nola.com’s Mid-City forum, is understandable considering the restaurant has only been open five weeks, but the food is some of the best I’ve had in the city. Mid-City, Uptown, the Marigny, Metairie, even the Westbank—wherever you are, you must make the trek to try this delightful new addition to the New Orleans culinary scene.
I started with the shrimp ceviche at the recommendation of Will, my very attentive, at times overzealous waiter. His recommendations were spot on throughout the night, although one gets the impression that this has less to do with Will and more to do with Daniel executing each dish to with a highly focused creative vision.
The shrimp were fat, plump and juicy, bursting into a full, pleasant mouthfeel with each bite. The perfect blend of red onion, cilantro, tomato and citrus juice left a resonating, pulsing heat on my tongue and in my throat. Long after I had finished, it stayed there like the undying coals in a campfire, a low-grade, humming burn that warmed me all over.
The play between citrus tang and an unidentified sweet element made me pucker one moment before giving me contented relief. Bite after bite, it was a game the ceviche and I played—sweet, sour, sweet, sour—and I was all in. And, unlike the restaurant’s interior, the dish was something to see: white Louisiana shrimp, red tomatoes, green cilantro, all overflowing in a beautiful cascade pouring out of a halved avocado.
Having made a great call with the ceviche, I went with another of Will’s recommendations and one of the evening’s specials—the sautéed catfish—that, how is this even possible, was under $10.
It was served with roasted new potatoes and warm, buttery spinach. The catfish was flaky but not light (two adjectives rarely separated when talking about fish). No, it was not light, but had a solid body that perfectly harmonized with the full mouthfeel of the spinach. The breading on the catfish was light and had an excellent tang that, like the citrus in the ceviche, cut into the fullness of the fish itself.
I am not a fan of roasted potatoes generally; I can never cook them so that they have a decent consistency all the way through. Daniel obviously knows a secret that I do not. They were fabulous—not too starchy, not too hard, but still they maintained some structure (think al dente pasta).
At this point, Will could have recommended the night’s garbage, and I probably would have paid 20 bucks for it, so when he mentioned garlic bread, there was no question. With six pieces for two dollars, it was another steal. With fresh-minced garlic, oregano, rosemary and olive oil—all atop light, crusty bread, it was another tasty pleasure.
Batting three for three, I let Will “surprise” me with dessert. Surprise is in quotation marks, because the menu only sports four options, all of them uninteresting and uninspired in writing. He brought me door number two, the bread budding, crosshatched with chocolate and caramel streaks and swirls. It was very pretty.
It was also piping hot, which always garners huge bonus points with me. Cinnamon, soft raisins, nutmeg—all the usual suspects were there. The bread pudding itself was soggy and mushy, a little less cohesive than I prefer. I like mine to have more structure. Nevertheless, I would still recommend it (although the mango sorbet sounded refreshing). The flavors melded together well, and at no point did I find the bread pudding’s sweetness saccharine.
My only regret is I did not get a red wine with my dessert. I ate the ceviche and catfish with a glass of the Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio, and it’s white-wine bite cut into the full butteriness of the shrimp, catfish and spinach. I had not yet finished the generous pour by the time dessert arrived, and the wine quickly became too harsh and overpowered the dessert.
That’s no fault of Daniel’s. Anytime a restaurant wants to give me a lot of wine that is fine with me. I still should have ordered a glass of a Cabernet Sauvignon, like the Silver Palm North Coast advertised on the menu.
My only major criticism was the huge chasmy rift between the food and the décor. The food was up there with the best in the city. I left smiling at having found this Mid-City gem tucked into The Esplanade at City Park, but it’s definitely a diamond in the rough.
Aside from the fresh-cut, beautiful flowers adorning each table, the decor was something I would expect from a low-class Italian joint ripped out of suburbia America. Outside on the apartment complex’s fence is a Pepsi-Cola sign with generic block letters advertising “DANIEL’S ON THE BAYOU” as if were some taqueria truck catering to lunchtime construction workers. I love a quick, cheap plato as much as anyone, but as soon as you eat anything at Daniel’s, you realize it is so much more.
Daniel’s features some of the best food I have had in a long time and is easily the best bang for your buck in the entire city—they comped my wine, but my bill was still under $30. Wait. Let me say that again: I had a dynamite four-course dinner for $25.
Daniel’s could easily be the hands-down, date-night choice for strapped guys everywhere (I live a five-minute bike ride away, but even if I still lived Uptown, I would make the fifteen-minute trip at $4 a gallon). But as soon as you walk in, the place is unsettling. The paper tablecloths, the cheap candles, the generally sparse feel—it all made me feel uneasy when juxtaposed with the amazing food in my mouth. Also, noise bleeds freely from Bayou Bar patrons next door and is distracting.
Of course, improvements in décor could mean higher menu prices. Tobar told me some were coming—like replacing the checkered tile floor with hardwood—and as he said it, I regretted all my knee-jerk criticisms. While I love beautiful restaurants, I am a poor foodie, and Daniel’s offers top-notch fare at unbeatable prices. If his new place keeps producing quality cuisine at affordable prices, Daniel’s will quickly capture a hard-core following, myself included.
Let’s just hope another hurricane doesn’t spoil the fun down on the bayou.
Daniel’s on the Bayou
3443 Esplanade Ave. Ste. 155
New Orleans, LA 70119
Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Cash and check only. ATM on location ($2.75 fee)