La Petite Grocery

Blue Crab Beignets, photo courtesy of Blake Killian, instagram @blakemakes

Blue Crab Beignets, photo courtesy of Blake Killian, instagram @blakemakes

So the other night I made a long overdue return to La Petite Grocery. LPG is helmed by Chef Justin Devillier, who worked in a other New Orleans kitchens before ascending the ranks of LPG and, after Hurricane Katrina, purchasing ownership of the restaurant with his wife and general manager, Mia. Although the menu changes seasonally, Chef Devillier’s talent for flavorful, technique-savvy yet non-fussy cuisine is consistent. Here’s a recap of my dinner:

Blue Crab Beignets, like most of his dishes, reflect Chef Devillier’s love of seafood and attention to detail. They’re served with a pleasant malt vinegar aioli (read: actual whisked aioli, not just mayonnaise with garlic chopped into it) and are pretty addictive.

Steak Tartare is prepared in the classic French style with the addition of ghost pepper bowfin caviar on top and crème fraiche on the side, a nice touch which allows the diner to control the spicy and creamy by simply pushing them away with knife and fork. For the record, I finished everything. Also, ghost pepper caviar seems a bit trendy these days. In less capable hands, it overpowers every other flavor in a dish, aka a mess. This is the correct way to use it.

The restaurant often serves an assortment of chilled seafood from the gulf with a mainstay side item of pickled quail eggs. (Try those, they’re great.) But one special of this particular evening was a Crudo of Wild Striped Bass dressed with celery, pickle brine, and fresh dill. I could probably eat an entire bass prepared this way. Simple. Delicious. Not fussy.

The pasta special was Lobster Roe Fettuccine, meaning the roe had been kneaded into the pasta itself—LPG handmakes all of its pasta in-house. This not only tasted good –How could it not?– but looked especially nice, topped with Florida bottarga, red Russian cabbage, and a garnish of beautiful, little onion flowers.

I had one entrée, which was recommended. And I’m glad it was recommended because I’d never have ordered it otherwise. Chicken Breast. Unless it’s a restaurant’s specialty, I almost never order chicken in restaurants. Safe. Boring. Something I could cook at home. This menu item is a winter dish that’s lasted into spring because it’s spectacular. The breast is roasted to juicy, fork-tender perfection. No one needs to sous-vide anything. The skin is crispy with the fat practically rendered off. I love fried chicken as much of the next person, but this is an argument in favor of roasting being a debatably superior and certainly more difficult technique. Also there was fluffy, airy cornbread dressing which tasted (bear with me) like the best corndog you’ve ever had. And fried sage and tasso jus finish off the dish. I’ve never seen a more elegant plate of poultry and stuffing. I’m done now.

Dessert was Cane Cream Puffs with candied peanuts and chocolate syrup. Simple, not too sweet. Basically a really good sundae and a nice way to finish a great meal. LPG has a nice wine list also –I sipped on an easy Vietti Barbera D’Asti through dinner– and makes killer Manhattans.

If I haven’t convinced you, Chef Devillier is a repeat nominee for the James Beard award for Best Chef South. I expect great things in the future. Wish him luck this year, and go try the place. You can thank me later.

La Petite Grocery

4238 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70115

504-891-3377

Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday 11:30-2:30
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday 5:30-9:30
Friday-Saturday 5:30 – 10:30
Sunday Brunch 10:30-2:30

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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

Peche Seafood Grill

So two good friends of mine are in town and were looking for a good “last night in town” dinner. One is a former resident of New Orleans, so the pressure was on… especially when we sat down to dinner and they said “Order for us.” Luckily for me, we were at Donald Link’s Peche. Honestly over the course of several visits, I’ve always been impressed with both their service and how delicious their food is. Chef Ryan Prewitt continues to serve some of the best seafood in town. The daily menu emphasizes the freshness of the seafood and his practical and light approach to cooking it. Yes, you can get seafood here in New Orleans that’s not deep-fried.

It’s absurd to me that I’ve never written about this place, so here we go:

We kicked things off with a dozen oysters on the half shell from Hopedale, Louisiana. (Yes, Peche will tell you exactly where their oysters are from. The night’s other oyster option was from Dauphin Island, Alabama.) Cocktail sauce, mignonette sauce, crackers. Classic.

photo 1We also ordered smoked tuna dip, which one of my friends loved so much that we did a second round of it. I always recommend their crudo of the day—In this case, it was tuna with LA navel orange and pecans, vinaigrette, and black pepper. That disappeared quite quickly.

Added to that some royal red shrimp, grilled with garlic and butter. If you’ve never had royal reds before, you have to try them. They have a great color, a natural saltiness. and a delicate texture. And last but not least, some beautiful stone crab claws, steamed with Meyer lemon butter.

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For our main course, we split their signature grilled whole redfish with salsa verde, a dish that’s won countless (and deserved) accolades. Of course we needed sides, so we got some of the best brabant potatoes in town, fried brussel sprouts with chili vinegar, and white beans stewed with bacon. Washed the meal down with a few pitchers of Southern Pecan and called it a night? Nope.

photo 3We wrapped up our meal with pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman’s key lime pie with buttermilk chantilly. Peche’s desserts, like sister restaurants Herbsaint and Cochon, are always refreshingly simple. This was no exception: Bright and satisfying.

Peche Seafood Grill

800 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70130

504-522-1744

Monday – Thursday: 11am – 10pm

Friday – Saturday: 11am – 11pm

Sunday: Closed

Coquette

Yes, I am aware I owe several restaurants (one in particular) write-ups about meals. But this post was specially requested by a friend I dined with who wants to remember exactly what we ate last night. So here goes:

A good friend of mine is back in New Orleans after a four-year absence and wanted to spend his week here dining at restaurants a college budget didn’t really fit. He dined out every day (often twice), and this meal at Coquette was his clear favorite.

We first sat down and our server asked us if we wanted cocktails. NOLA is famous for its southern hospitality, particularly at nice restaurants. This meal in its totality had some of the best service I’ve had: Friendly, informative, and attentive while simultaneously not over-eager, condescending, nor intrusive.

Bread and our cocktails (the daily special, an Orange and Ginger Punch) came out first. I often say you can tell a lot about a restaurant by its bread… and its butter too I suppose. Something so simple can really set the tone for a meal. The punch was great, the flavor of the vodka muted with the sweetness of the orange and the slightly spicy, almost peppery flavor of the ginger. Were we not headed for a night of beer-drinking after and doing wine pairings with dinner, I would’ve drank several glasses of it.

Punch and Bread

Man cannot live on bread alone. So he invented butter and alcohol.

To start, a salad of Pickled Baby Beets. I have this theory that people who don’t like beets have only had them out of a can. These were delicious, red and golden in color. The burrata (mozzarella’s creamier cousin) and little slices of duck ham added some richness. Fava beans for some protein and green. (Anyone who’s cooked fava beans knows what an ordeal they can be to prepare, and there were quite a few of them on this plate.) The sweetness of some aged (rather than just reduced) balsamic vinegar just enhanced every other component on the plate.

Next, a perfectly cooked filet of Alaskan Halibut, skinless but crispy on the outside and just-cooked on the inside. Crispy-tender English peas, still bright green, around a Carolina Gold “risotto” sitting in a spring onion broth rounded out the dish. Risotto is in quotation marks because it wasn’t traditional risotto rice but a long-grain prepared risotto-style. The friend I dined with expressed slight disappointment that it wasn’t traditional risotto, so I probably should’ve warned him that Carolina Gold on the menu implied a different grain. He finished everything on his plate though, so clearly he wasn’t that disappointed.

Although another restaurant in town is more famous for Cochon De Lait, I think Coquette’s take on the dish is just as good. Maybe even better. Anyway, a well-sized portion of fork-tender pork sits on top of sweet potato puree, surrounded by caramelized brussel sprouts. On a personal note, I didn’t grow up eating brussel sprouts. My parents never cooked them, so I was introduced to them as an adult in fine dining situations. Consequently, I’ve never disliked them. These are among the best. I’ve seen an anti-vegetarian or two gasp at how good these are.

We got an extra entree to split: Softshell Crab. This dish emphasizes Chef Michael Stoltzfus’s Maryland roots. Unlike the majority of softshell crabs in town, this one is not battered like fried chicken. It’s just a deep-fried crab, awesomely light except for the oil it was fried in and the crab’s own fat. Kohlrabi puree and Merguez sausage add some contrast of creaminess and spiciness. More of those wonderful caramelized brussel sprouts add sweet and bitter. Fresh watercress and fried mint (yes, fried mint) freshen up the dish. Fantastic.

Soft-Shell Crab

We dined at a table on the sidewalk, so I didn’t feel bad using my phone’s camera.

Coquette got a new pastry chef last year. Chef Zak Miller, like many other great pastry chefs (in town and elsewhere), takes classic desserts and remixes their flavors and textures playfully… creating dishes that give diners a comforting familiarity and the fun of trying to figure out why adish they’ve never had before reminds them of something else.

Unlike my mother, I am not a donut lover. But the Old Fashioned Donut we each had for dessert was quite good. Maybe it was the portion being not too huge and not too heavy. Maybe it was the sweet bursts of the huckleberries around it, or the crumbles of oatmeal crunch, or the melting scoop of sour cream iced cream on top. I probably wouldn’t have picked this from a dessert menu, so I’m glad it was part of the tasting and I got to try it.

We split an extra entree so why not an extra dessert as well? And “Strawberries & Cream” is classic, but I’ve never had it quite like this. A “strawberry roll-up” (which looked like a fruit roll-up but was more like a paper thin hard candy) piped full of whipped cream, flanked by strawberry sorbet, macerated strawberries, and strawberry foam. That sounds heavier than it was. The only part of the dish remotely heavy was the cream, which obviously had been whipped full of air. Any strawberry lover — I’m assuming these were local Ponchatoula, at the height of their season — would enjoy this celebration of the fruit. The only other components of this dish were a little mint and obviously some sugar.

This was a meal of clean, bright flavors and pleasantly varied textures. Some dishes you may see coming to the table and at first think “Wow, too much going on” but realize all the ingredients come together beautifully once you have a taste. One of the reasons I’m continuously impressed by Coquette is the balance of each dish. Between flavors. Between textures. Between cuisines and styles of cooking. It’s always a balance done gracefully and subtly.

2800 Magazine St.
New Orleans LA 70115
504.265.0421
Lunch: Wednesday – Saturday 11:00-3:00
Dinner: Daily 5:30-10:00
http://www.coquette-nola.com

I ate a lot this weekend.

Friday lunch: Shrimp Etouffee and Fried Chicken at Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe. I actually went in for a quick salad bar visit, but the hostess convinced me to order a dish. It wasn’t motivated by “I was told to SELL this dish.” Rather, it was pure pride. “You have GOT to try our gulf shrimp special today.” The waitress who brought it was equally proud and excited: “Baby, this gon’ be the best etouffee and chicken you ever ate.” The etouffee had a generous amount of huge gulf shrimp and a slightly spicy sauce that enhanced the shrimp flavor and was thick but not heavy. Everyone claims to have the best friend chicken in town, but what I got was definitely top five.

610 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 212-5656

Saturday dinner: Several courses with wine pairings at Le Meritage in Le Maison Dupuy.

  • Crispy Tuna Roll, dynamite sauce, sea salad. Despite being quickly deep fried, the roll was only lightly battered and the fish inside was still raw. I avoid deep-fried sushi like it’s my job, but this was quite good. The red pepper and mayo sauce was used sparingly and correctly. The seaweed in the salad added some nice salt and crunch.
  • Seared Sea Scallop, yellow curry, crispy shallot. The curry was very mild and didn’t hide the flavor of a well-cooked scallop. The shallots on top gave a nice texture change. I like all the ingredients, so naturally I loved the dish.
  • Foie Gras Torchon, brioche, port reduction. Rich, rich, rich. But no complaints here.
  • Duck Two Ways, fig compote, foie gras, butter potatoes. Seared breast and confit of dark meat. Really three ways if you count the slice of duck foie gras. I love duck.
  • Grilled Venison Loin, corn and black bean salad, chimichurri. A nice dish that didn’t mask the game flavor of the meat and countered it with a nice, carby salad and a herby, fresh sauce.
  • Peanut Butter Pave, berries. Like a really good Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Thick but not overly sweet or buttery. Definitely tasted and felt healthy despite being dessert.

1001 Rue Toulouse
New Orleans, LA 70112
(504) 522-8800

Sunday late lunch: Paneed Veal and Crab Fried Rice at American Sector. I’m not a huge veal fan, but what isn’t good paneed (i.e. pounded to a uniform thickness and deep fried)? The crab fried rice had a hint of curry and lumps of crabmeat in it. Quite good.

945 Magazine Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 528-1940

Sunday dinner: Brisket Pho at Lost Love Lounge. The staff of this kitchen aren’t Vietnamese, but they make a great bowl of pho. A little too much star anise but otherwise a great bowl of soup for a cool night.

2529 Dauphine Street
New Orleans, LA 70117
(504) 949-2009