MoPho

The chef and staff of MoPho, the Southeast Asian restaurant by way of Southern Louisiana, have run the gauntlet this past week. Chef Michael Gulotta, his managing partners Jeff Gulotta and Jeffrey Bybee, and their team have been doing hundreds of covers daily since the restaurant opened on Saturday, January 11. Badass. The pace has not slowed down.

But everyone’s grateful. Clearly business is good.

Gulotta’s restaurant serves the Vietnamese classics everyone in New Orleans expects: Pho, spring rolls, bánh mì (labeled as po’boys on the menu). He’s creative with the ingredients. Beef cheeks in your pho? Check. Head cheese in your pho? Sure. His imagination shows in the “specials” in the center of the menu, bigger plates closer to his fine dining background. Regardless of dish, Gulotta’s love for local Louisiana ingredients is on every plate.

“Do you want that coursed out or whenever ready?” is a common question here. Menu items are picturesque in one of two ways: A) The classic Asian way of carbs topped with expertly sliced protein. B) The delicate, elegant constructions that somehow look effortless. Gulotta spent the last several years as the chef of Restaurant August, and he brought his perfectionism to this new place.

By the way, this is not a formal restaurant. You’ll get a sharper knife for your ribs or small spoons for your coffee or dessert, but otherwise the utensils and condiments are self-serve, right at the table. Paper towel rolls within arm’s reach. Casual fine dining at its best.
As for the staff, the chef and his crew look like war vets right now. It’s easy to imagine perhaps someone has thrown their hands up, given up, and walked out. If you can’t stand the heat… etc. Every time the door opens at least three heads turn to greet the customer, estimate how many in the party, and assess the impact this will have on service.

So here’s my take on this place, as an outsider and new fan:

DAY 1: My understanding is that lunch service was packed. I did not make it to dinner on opening night because I, like others, was reeling from the Saints playoff game and didn’t want my first experience of this restaurant to be in a drunken stupor.

DAY 2: I make it to MoPho for lunch. Like a sign from God, “1pm” is both the time of my arrival and a cocktail on the menu. It’s made of rum and chicory and egg cream, extremely reminiscent of a Vietnamese iced coffee and just as easy to drink. For lunch I settle on a simple bowl of rice and LA Blue Crab braised in fermented black bean sauce. The smell brings me back to southeast Asia. The taste confirms it. The crab is nicely cooked, lumpy and flaky. It’s sweet inside the pungent black bean sauce, highlighted with fish sauce and fresh herbs. My mother would love this. My grandmother would too. Anyone who appreciates the authentic flavors of southeast Asian seafood would. This simple bowl tells me this isn’t a restaurant whitewashing Asian cuisine. I’ve spent a good part of my life living and traveling in Southeast Asia, and MoPho reminds me of innovative, nontraditional restaurants there. No flavor compromise. Asia. Right here. With local ingredients. I am floored.

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I know it’s blurry. I was excited.

DAY 6: After waiting over 45 minutes for a table, I’m back for dinner with friends: The GM of a CBD restaurant, the sommelier of a French Quarter fine dining establishment, the bartender of a garden district wine bar, and a former Bourbon Street bartender. The somm has brought wine ($10 corkage fee), and we sip through the cocktail menu while strategically attacking the food menu. The Vermillion is a mix of papaya and sparkling wine, as pretty to look at and as gentle on the palate as its name suggests. The Tamarind Sour, a rye/tamarind/honey concoction, by contrast is happily not as sour as its name suggests. The Dragon Lady is made up of dragon fruit, tequila, jalapeno, and lemongrass—It pleasantly doesn’t have the fire its name would suggest. Same goes for the Viper: vodka, sorel, ginger, and galangal. It took my bartender friend’s knowledge of liquors and my knowledge of Asian flora to decode all the ingredients, but all the cocktails are good. Don’t let the names intimidate you.

We start off with the chicken wings in lemongrass and ginger. Wings sound like a strange thing to compliment, but these are outstanding. The lemongrass and ginger have such fresh, clean flavors that it’s easy to forget the wings are deep-fried. The crispy skin gives way to a salty, sweet, strangely refreshing taste. I could eat these all day.

The spring rolls, available in shrimp sausage or pork shoulder, are what you would expect. Fermented pepper in the peanut sauce is a nice touch.

P&J Oysters are a hit too. Despite coming fried and atop housemade mayo and pickled blue cheese, they are surprisingly light (not as light as the wings) and some radish brightens their flavor and lends texture. These oysters stand out as a preparation not even remotely Asian, but they’re local and delicious nonetheless.

The Lamb Neck and Beet Green Curry is nuanced and comforting. We try to figure out what’s in the roti that makes it different. (It’s got creole cream cheese in it.) The meat is fork-tender, and the curry is full of flavor but balanced enough that people who may dislike the polarizing tastes of lamb and of curry would probably still enjoy this dish.

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Photo courtesy of Chef Michael Gulotta

Pork Trotter in Crab Broth is likewise expertly cooked, a wise nod to the Asian habit of combining pork and seafood (e.g. every dumpling ever). The crab salad, Meyer lemon, and mint lighten an otherwise spicy dish that would be a mess in less capable hands.

The gulf fish, in this case a Red Snapper, comes whole and head-on, exactly as you’d see in Asia. It’s on a bed of culantro and doused with red navel orange and soy sauce. Like the spring rolls, this is classic southeast Asian fare. It comes with a welcome bowl of rice. Nothing particularly creative but still a classic executed well.

And the clams. Man, the clams. They’re from Cedar Key, braised in pepper jelly. Housemade lamb lardo, basil, and crispy shallots decorate them. Vietnamese fried bread (“beignets”) flavored with annatto in long, thin strips is ready for dipping into the broth. The barrage of other flavors doesn’t impede the clams’ sweet flavor and delicate texture. They’re decidedly our table’s favorite dish of the meal.

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Photo courtesy of Chef Michael Gulotta

We’re too full to contemplate more than one dessert, so we share a Condensed Milk Cake with chicory coffee ice cream and meringues. Like a Tres Leches, it hits the spot. It’s a nice combination of not only flavors but textures and temperatures. (Is it obvious from this and that first cocktail, that both the chef and I have a passion for Vietnamese Iced Coffee?) If you know Chef Kelly Fields, I’d bet she’s proud of what Mike’s done here.

DAY 8: A sign about not parking in Burger King’s lot has been posted on the restaurant’s front door. Apparently BK is towing offending cars, so make sure not to park on their concrete.

I’m here right when the doors open, and, for the first time, catch a glimpse of Chef Mike in his new place. He’s on the phone but, upon finishing the call, walks over to say hi. We do a little catching up. How are things? How’s the family? Some industry talk about covers (over 1000 the first three days). A “thanks for coming” and a sincere appreciation that, yes, I do like the food. I make a joke about “Happy One Week Anniversary.” The conversation is breathless and brief. He has to get back to the kitchen.

The best chefs don’t just know they’re talented; they want to prove it every time.

In 15 minutes, the place goes from empty to full. Every seat and stool taken.

Mike is surprisingly calm, like he’s stopped attempting to control the chaos and has made his peace with it. Accepted it. This approach has clearly trickled down to his staff. The bartenders talk about the two beers that have been 86ed and how last night left them without any lemons prepped. They are working to repair their bar from last night’s service.

This day I attack a Hot Sausage Bánh Mì and a Beef Pho. Both excellent. I understand why they call the bánh mì a “po’boy.” It’s because it’s larger than any regular bánh mì would be. The pho is what you expect but with great options for meat: Oxtail, cheek, tendon, flank, red pepper braised tripe, rib-eye. I settle on an oxtail/tendon/tripe combo. I do taste my friend’s vegetarian pho (tofu, mushroom, shallot, mustard greens). It’s surprisingly satisfying.

I can’t pronounce the battered shrimp, but we order them anyway. They remind me of tempura but salty with fish sauce and sweet with finely sliced pickled mango. I want rice.

MoPho’s chocolate pudding comes in a wide, relatively shallow dish. On top of it are caramelized bananas, sesame sorbet, and a chocolate-sesame tuile. Nice and rich but mercifully not too sweet.

DAY 9: My friends must think I’m insane, but I’m a completist when it comes to two things: Video game sub-missions — Yes, I need every heart in Zelda — and menus for bars and restaurants that I like.

I’m here with a new friend today. We pour Vietnamese Iced Coffee (of course) and select items to share. The Blue Crab Salad is delicate and looks kinda like something you’d see at August. The shaved Vietnamese sausage on it is a genius way to deal with an ingredient that has lots of flavor but a slightly annoying texture. A puree of acorn squash and ginger rounds out the dish really nicely.

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Vietnamese coffee almost ready to pour

We order Grilled Jumbo Shrimp on Vermicelli. The server forgets to add the fried egg to the order, but the sizable shrimp and spiced pork pate (perhaps with a hint of fermented shrimp paste?) deliver more than enough flavor. The noodles aren’t actually vermicelli. They’re the wider, flatter rice noodles. They’re also about 10 seconds overcooked, but that doesn’t stop us from finishing them and the grilled, wild green onion.

Grilled short ribs from Two Run Farms, seasoned with lime and black pepper, are fork-tender. Even the cartilage around the bones isn’t a challenge. The beef is cut into long strips. Pure Asia. No slouching cube of boneless short rib like some restaurants. The rapini alongside is good, roasted in cast iron. We wish there more of it. Something crispy garnishes the plate (puffed rice?) and adds a nice, subtle texture.

519d77fe780611e3a12b0e196947e596_8Photo courtesy of Chef Michael Gulotta

Dessert is black rice pudding balls, the offspring of congee and arancini. They look pretty on their rectangular plate, but a bowl would be more effective since they are round, roll, and aren’t glued down to the plate with some kind of syrup. But they’re good. The plating isn’t ideal, but the dessert is drizzled in honey and comes with candied orange and a Satsuma/Meyer-Lemon Sorbet.

As we leave, I hear a manager say “It’s like Navy Seal Hell Week.”

The bartender takes a break from 86ing more beers and wines. With half a smile, he notes that this is the “slowest lunch service so far.” The place is still packed. It’s just past 1pm, and the line at the door is only eight people deep right now.

DAY 10: Flying solo at dinner. The hostess asks if I mind the end of the bar. Not at all. The bartenders are a graceful tornado: Mixing drinks, serving drinks, explaining the menu. The brunette with the big hair and nice smile… She takes my order.

Jeff Gulotta and Jeffrey Bybee bring a pho bowl and a rice bowl to the couple next to me. It’s not theirs. The Jeffs ask if the order is mine. I tell them I’d gladly eat it and pay for it. But it isn’t mine. They swiftly retreat into the kitchen.

My order for Pork Belly over vermicelli arrives. Grilled greens and delicate pork skins on the side. The egg is not forgotten. A pork spring roll sneaks into my bowl. Fine by me. The noodles still aren’t vermicelli, but they’re cooked perfectly this time. Paper-thin candied orange sweetens, freshens, and seals the deal.

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Photo courtesy of Chef Michael Gulotta

One of my pet peeves is when all of a restaurant’s dishes taste the same. Not the case here. This dish is listed right under my original crab bowl, but the flavor profile is wholly different. It’s the perfect Asian-American breakfast: Bacon, egg, rice, fruit. Redefined.

As I walk away I hear the brunette bartender sigh and 86 the Chardonnay. People are still waiting at the door. The staff is still powering through but looking to the horizon. The restaurant is closed tomorrow, and they’re determined to finish strong.

DAY 11: The staff of MoPho rests.

Last Thoughts:
Strongest opening I’ve seen a restaurant do. It’s rare to have this many customers and still execute this well. I will be back.

MoPho

514 City Park Avenue

New Orleans, LA 70119

504-482-6845

Wednesday – Sunday: 11am – 10pm

Tuesday: Closed

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2 Comments

  1. It’s rare that I read reviews on restaurants in cities outside LA because it’s such a tease. But when the review includes more visits to one place in one week than times I’ve gotten into a restaurant other than my own in the last year – you kind of begin to wonder what’s so special! MoPho comes across as the kind of place you want to call your favorite… I’d like to spend a week or two alone at their bar working my way through the menu – already thoroughly guided as to the hits & misses by Mr. Marin. *sigh* This review left me hubgry and terribly disappointed by the rice I ate for family meal. Why wasn’t it topped with blue crab?!? A trip to NOLA has become even more imminent…

    Like

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