Entering La Place, it doesn’t take much imagination to feel yourself transported to another time and place. The time thanks to the vintage jazz playing in the background, and to the antique bar and a mosaic tile floor inherited from the historic James Pharmacy building where the restaurant opened in February, could be 50 years ago, or a hundred.
And the place – any of the scores of gumbo joints, po’boy shops and other unassuming eateries scattered around New Orleans and the bayou country that, for all their relative obscurity, are as essential to the local tradition as Commander’s Palace, Galatoire’s and other celebrated temples of haute Cajun/Creole cuisine.
Spanning one wall of the narrow dining room, a collection of vintage black-and-white photos from the La Place town archives suggest that the location might be that of the restaurant’s namesake community, just up the shores of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. At the center of the display is a large framed portrait of the legendary jazz trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory, a native of La Place.
It’s no accident, of course, that La Place is the hometown of owner/chef Joe Tullos, who also happens to be a musician – albeit a rock musician. And, like his music career, Tullos’ sense of adventure has led him to venture outside his native culinary tradition. At Gulf Rim Cafe, which Tullos and his wife, Andrea, previously operated at this address, the menu spanned the region from Key West to the Yucatan peninsula.
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At La Place, Tullos has returned home. And he has narrowed the focus of his talents all the way down to a single aspect of his native cuisine: sausage-making. Those talents are considerable, judging by his authentically spicy, smoky take on andouille, the sausage that is his hometown’s culinary claim to fame.
Andouille is by no means the only proof of Tullos’ sausage-making skills. Boudin balls – deep-fried orbs of ground pork, chicken and rice – are evidence that he’s just as accurate with more subtle flavors. So is the green onion sausage that comes with the sausage sampler, along with andouille, duck and sage, and Creole shrimp sausages. In the likely event that you find yourself craving more than just a taste, a chalkboard informs you that you can buy the sausages (as well as house-cured bacon and Tasso ham) to take home.
In order to allow Tullos to concentrate on charcuterie, he and partner Matt Fox (who also owns The Wooden Nickel, a popular watering hole a couple doors down the street) hired another chef in the summer to take over the rest of the menu. Jeremy Blankenship, formerly chef de cuisine at The Carolina Inn, has hit the ground running with only a rare minor stumble.
Blankenship delivered a first-rate shrimp po’boy recently, featuring plump shellfish in an exemplary light breading served on an authentic po’boy roll. True to tradition, the sandwich is available “dressed” (“in a skirt of lettuce and a cap of tomato,” as our affable server poetically put it) or “undressed” (without garnish). The house-cut fries that accompanied the sandwich were on the money, too, reinforcing the notion that the chef knows his way around a deep fryer.
On another visit, fried oysters fell just short of the mark with a breading that strayed just over the line into too-heavy territory. Pan-seared flounder, the fish of the day, was so good that it was easy to forgive our clearly inexperienced server for repeatedly describing the fish as “grilled.” But the maque choux cake that accompanied the fish was marred by a dense, hard crust.
On the other hand, a side of maque choux in its unadulterated traditional form – a Cajun-style succotash of corn, peppers and onions punctuated with bits of Tasso ham – is consistently rewarding. So is the potato salad that I’m told some bayou natives prefer to stir into their gumbo in lieu of the traditional rice.
Either way, at La Place you have two gumbo options, both winners: Creole seafood, and a chicken-and-andouille gumbo whose soupy consistency – thinner than most gumbos – belies its rich flavor. Red beans and rice, punctuated with Tasso ham (a vegetarian version is also available) is another worthy option. So is crawfish étouffée, which you can get as an entree or slathered over those house-cut fries in a decadent appetizer offering.
The kitchen turns out a fine bananas Foster, as long as you don’t mind that fire department regulations nowadays prohibit pretty much every restaurant from flambéing tableside. Keep your eye peeled for dessert specials, too, which might be a classic vanilla bean crème brûlée or a many-layered, ganache-glazed wedge of cake and chocolate pudding called a Doberge cake.
Matt Fox and manager Dean James have put together an excellent bar program across the board, from its small but intelligently curated wine list to its eclectic beer selection (including New Orleans favorite Abita as well as a number of local brews) to a cocktail list that covers the Big Easy classics from absinthe fountain to Sazerac. Jones is excited about a bloody mary program he’s working on that will present an extensive mix-and-match selection of spirits, mixes and garnishes ranging from pickled okra to smoked chicken wing. He’s shooting for an October debut of the list as part of a new Sunday brunch service.
The brunch menu is still in the works, but it’s a safe bet that the music will be jazz.
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