New Mid-City restaurant a must-try

June 25, 2008

Jonathan Edwards

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¢.”

Jonathan Edwards

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.

Jonathan Edwards

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

504.298.1755

Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Cash and check only. ATM on location ($2.75 fee)

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Mid-City uproar over soaring energy bills

June 21, 2008

Entergy customers confused about doubling ‘fuel adjustment charge’

By Jonathan Edwards

Confused Mid-City residents “fell to floor” over the “sticker shock” after receiving the most recent wave of Entergy bills and vowed to take action, according to a multi-thread discussion created earlier this week on the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization’s E-mail group.

“I know that everyone in Orleans Parish is experiencing the same thing, my question is why? I have spoken to people who live in surrounding parishes and they are not getting the HUGE fuel adjustment on their electric bills,” wrote April Allen.

“My fee for actual electric use last month was $141,” Allen continued, “the fuel adjustment was $164, more than my actual electric use. Same with gas!….Between gas, fuel adjustments, car insurance and home owners insurance it’s getting really hard to live here!!”

Natural gas prices have skyrocketed 120 percent in the last year and will lead to higher bills if customers do not take steps to minimize their energy consumption, Entergy announced Thursday on the eve of summer.

Amy Rini has taken a number of steps to conserve energy and reduce her energy bill by weatherizing her house, but the “bills are so high even when our actual fuel and/or gas usage is UNDER $100. The fuel adjustment fees more than double our bill just about every month,” Rini wrote.

Both Allen and Rini mistakenly think that their “energy charge” represents the cost of energy they consumed, and the “fuel adjustment charge” is somehow separate from that said Councilmember Shelley Midura. Many people make this mistake.

People are confused when they say that their fuel adjustment charge is more than what Entergy charged them for the energy they used. The fuel adjustment charge is their energy use, said Midura.

Entergy bills are divided into two main categories: (1) the “energy charge” or base rate, and (2) a fuel adjustment charge, said Morgan Stewart, Entergy New Orleans’s communications manager.

The base rate is the cost of providing and maintaining the infrastructure required to generate, transmit, and distribute energy. These costs include employee salaries, Entergy trucks, power plants, power lines, power poles, Stewart said.

The fuel adjustment charge is based on the cost of raw materials used to generate power—coal and natural gas. Entergy passes these rises and drops in material costs directly to the consumer. Entergy’s profit margin remains the same, said Stewart.

Midura largely agrees with Stewart’s explanation but elaborates on his explanation.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, Entergy included the cost of nuclear energy generated at their Grand Gulf nuclear station, located in western Mississippi, in the base rate. Grand Gulf’s nuclear-generated electricity is always Entergy’s first power option for New Orleans because it is the least expensive, cheaper than coal and natural gas.

After Katrina, however, a largely emptied New Orleans required little power. With no customers paying money for energy while Entergy still covered their financial costs, the power company suffered massive losses and started selling their nuclear power to other utility companies, Midura said. Cash-strapped Entergy declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2006, according to the power company’s Web site.

Demand spiked in the hot summer months of 2006 after residents returned to the city, said Midura. In a stopgap effort to provide low-cost nuclear energy to customers, Entergy started including Grand Gulf-generated electricity in the fuel adjustment charge, making it slightly higher than it would be otherwise.

The bills have remained high since Katrina, but for different reason, said Midura. Companies selling energy were wary of doing business with a company in bankruptcy, so the ones that did charged high prices.

“Nobody would do business with Entergy. The ones that did charged them an arm and a leg, so they passed that along to the consumer,” said Councilmember Midura.

Entergy stabilized as energy-using, bill-paying customers returned to the city, and the New Orleans power company exited bankruptcy in May 2007, according to an Entergy newsletter. Re-establishing themselves allowed the power company to buy energy at a cheaper rate, said Midura.

Record-high energy costs—like the 120 percent increase in natural gas prices over the last year—have kept bills high for New Orleans customers.

“The most effective way, however, that customers can manage their electricity bills is to manage their electricity usage,” said Melonie Hall, customer service director for Entergy New Orleans.

Entergy’s Thursday press release “encourages wiser energy use this summer,” including raising the temperature on your air-conditioner, turning off electronic equipment when you are not using it, and weatherizing leaky doors and windows.


Award-winning project aims to create citizen-responsive government

June 13, 2008

Neighborhood Associations’ disregard of renters a roadblock to full citizen involvement, says project director

By Jonathan Edwards

The New Orleans Citizen Participation Project met today to jumpstart a grassroots efforts that would take decision-making power out of the backrooms at City Hall and put it in the hands of residents.

We have to have an open chain of information between government and citizens, said Khalil Shahyd, the director of the New Orleans CPP, when he gave an hour-long presentation to community leaders and activists from across the city.

Right now the decisions are already made, the contracts are already signed, things are already done before citizens have any chance for involvement, Shahyd said.

A formal citizen participation project “allows residents to be aware of the activities of government before they occur,” according to a pamphlet distributed during the meeting at the Beacon of Hope Resource Center in Lakeview. “It requires that neighborhood residents be enabled to take part in the planning process and monitor progress on public or private projects and programs.

“Instead of having people overflowing City Council chambers in distress about proposed development, residents will be made aware of all plans and be allowed to give input on those decisions that directly affect their community,” the pamphlet continues.

“It makes sure that what happens is what people want” Shahyd said. An issue arises or a proposal is presented—residents hear about it and decide if it is in their best interest.

The idea is not new, nor is it unique to New Orleans, said Shahyd. The PowerPoint presentation moved on, revealing a map of the United States. Stars started popping up on the screen, representing already-existing citizen participation programs: Sacramento, Houston, New York City, Baltimore—at least a dozen lit up.

Some of these programs have been around since the 1970s, but most were created in a “top-down decision” by a city’s government, Shahyd said. Local officials decided that their citizens needed this tool, and so they gave it to them. New Orleans will be the first “ground-up” approach, emerging from a collection of neighborhood groups.

“Our citizen participation program will be created by you. It is a people-driven exercise, and everyone is invited,” said Shahyd. “We hope that in six months to a year that we can create the first bottom-up, citizen-led democracy in America. It sounds like a lot, but we can do it.”

In the CPP model used in other cities, neighborhood associations are the grassroots forums where residents voice concerns over issues or make a decision passed down from city government, said Shahyd. He then attacked some New Orleans neighborhood organizations, though none by name, for excluding certain groups in their respective communities.

“We’re seeing a return to a land-based type of participation,” Shahyd said, referring to a time in early U.S. history when the right to vote required property ownership. “They’re not really operating as a neighborhood association, but as a homeowners association,” he said. The interests of renters are often ignored, said Shahyd.

Tension between homeowners and renters is not a new subject for Shahyd. He addressed them in an August 2006 interview as many New Orleanians were returning to the city after a Katrina-induced exile. On camera, an emotional Shahyd mentions an unnamed contingent of New Orleans residents who did not want renters, or rental properties, back in the city:

“We have to understand: whether you’re a homeowner or you’re a renter, it’s not because people own land, or because they own property that they want to come back,” he said. “But it’s because this land owns us; we belong to this land.

“And so young or old, crippled, blind, dumb and crazy, people want to come back to here, because this land is concrete, the soil, the river, the lake—everything—it owns us, and we belong to it. It has nothing to do with homeowners and renters,” said Shahyd.

Shahyd and the New Orleans CPP aim to use neighborhood associations, including the homeowners they represent, as the primary conduits of information between city government and individual residents. Open communication, Shahyd said, is the key to citizen-led decision-making.

“If citizens don’t have the relevant information, they can’t make decisions that affect their lives and their neighborhoods,” said Shahyd. A citizen participation project in New Orleans would increase government transparency and accountability, and would do so by creating a system where there is an open flow of information between elected officials and the citizens they represent.

Mike Murphy, the community outreach director for Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic, asked Shahyd how the project would acquire operational funding.

Many already-existing citizen participation projects are funded by their city’s annual budget, Shahyd responded. This, however, leaves them open to fluctuations in the political climate. Nevertheless, a similar project in New Orleans would probably acquire funding from the city budget, but Shahyd also said private funding was possible as well.

The New Orleans CPP is in the middle of a two-month campaign to inform city residents about their project and galvanize energy for their upcoming July summit after winning a $25,000 grant from the Seattle-based Case Foundation, according to a May 9 press release. Resident input at the summit, Shahyd says, will determine many key features of New Orleans citizen participation project will look like.

“The Summit will provide additional information on the concept of a formal Citizen Participation Program; more important, citizen attendees will begin the work of designing the CPP process going forward and determining how they wish to guide the project through the design and implementation phases.”

Neither Kate Parker, the president of the Faubourg-St. John Neighborhood Association, nor Jennifer Weishaupt, the president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, could be reached by deadline. Lifeblood Beat will continue tracking this story.