Today we announce the winners of the 2021 Eater Awards, celebrating the restaurants and pop-ups that have made a major impact on New Orleans’s dining scene since January 2020.
While pandemic-related challenges continue to plague the industry, with staffing shortages and supply chain issues exacerbated locally by Hurricane Ida, the area’s restaurants, chefs, and industry workers have shown incredible courage and creativity over the last two years. New restaurants have continued to open, establishing a new normal and helping to shape the future of the New Orleans dining scene. Eater did not announce awards in 2020, so restaurants that opened in both 2020 and most of 2021 were considered for this year’s awards; openings from the very end of 2021 will be considered next year.
This year’s Eater Awards highlight five standouts that made a mark on New Orleans cuisine, reinforcing the deep relationship between the city and Haiti or exploring West African-meets-Creole with a progressive tasting menu. They served as a destination to excite and stimulate our senses as we came out of isolation, and breathed new life into the food industry in New Orleans. More simply, they brought us gastronomic comfort during a less than comfortable time.
With that, please join us in celebrating the winners for Restaurant of the Year, Chef of the Year, Pop-Up of the Year, Fine Dining Restaurant of Year, and Debut of the Year.
Restaurant of the Year
There’s an inherent vibrancy at Fritai — in the tropical drinks using the Haitian spirit clairin, in chef Charly Pierre’s dishes accompanied by spicy pikliz, and in the dining room, where deep orange walls show off work by Haitian artists. It’s more dining hub than restaurant, with an inviting upstairs lounge meant for mellow congregating and exploring its bar program, which manages to bring something new to a city known as the home of the cocktail. Downstairs, Charly Pierre’s energetic approach to Haitian-meets-New Orleans cuisine is on display with his fritai sandwich, a playful invention of pulled pork between two fried plantains with avocado, mango sauce, and pikliz; his espageti with smoked herring, epis paste, andouille sausage, and a soft-boiled egg; and mirliton salad with grilled carrot and candied plantain.
1535 Basin St., Treme
Chef of the Year
Of all New Orleans’s standout dining experiences to be had in the last eighteen months, Serigne Mbaye’s Dakar Nola tasting dinners rose above the rest. Spanning the course of a year at three different venues, Mbaye’s dinners blended traditional West African and Louisiana ingredients — like habanero peppers and dehydrated seafood powder with okra and red beans — to create contemporary Senegalese tasting menus that were simultaneously delicate and bold. Mbaye, born in Harlem, found a love for food while learning how to cook from his mother — a restaurant owner — and spent his childhood splitting time between there and Senegal, where he went to school. Of the cities Mbaye has lived in, he says he finds New Orleans to be the closest American city to Dakar, by virtue of its culture, history, and food — flavors he says are also the backbone of what makes Senegalese cuisine so great — smokiness, acidity, and tanginess. Mbaye’s dinner return to Melissa Clark’s acclaimed Mosquito Supper Club early next year.
Pop-Up of the Year
Independent craft ice cream makers have taken New Orleans by storm over the past two years — maybe it has something to do with being in the midst of a terrifying global health crisis? Rahm Haus, the cake and ice cream pop-up from baker Jillian Duran and team (which has more recently begun experimenting with savory food) seemed to salve the consciousness of many this year; offering the kind of delightful, uncomplicated comfort we seek in hard times. Duran’s ice cream, which so many have been willing to shell out a pretty penny for, understanding what goes into it, is the ultimate treat: textural, beautiful, and unexpected. Courtyard Brewery is Rahm Haus’s home base for scoops and pints of an ever-changing array of flavors like Fall Bread Pudding (bronze fennel fronds, miso ice cream, caramel swirls, and sweet potato brioche bread pudding pieces) or the Black and Gold (local black garlic, honey ice cream with salted dark chocolate and honeycomb candy), available every weekend or by ordering online.
Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year
The restaurant space at the corner of Thalia and Constance Streets in the LGD has been transformed for Lengua Madre, Ana Castro’s modern Mexican tasting menu experience. It’s now a dim, sparsely decorated room accessed by a hallway lit up by bright neon pink lights — a bit of which pours into the dining room, casting an eerie and enticing glow. Minimal, individualized lighting elements give the room a farm-chic vibe, one that fits Castro’s minimalist — but incredibly layered — five-course meal. Dishes like a luscious fontal tetela, a triangle-shaped corn masa stuffed with cheese and topped with charred avocado; Louisiana long grain rice with clams, shrimp, mussels, and roe; and cobia al pastor served alongside an optional, thoughtful wine pairing will undoubtedly help shape New Orleans’s fine-dining future.
1245 Constance St., Lower Garden District
Debut of the Year
While chef Sophina Uong and her husband Bill Greenwell briefly operated Mister Mao as a pop-up in the early days of the pandemic, the debut of Mister Mao, the restaurant, in Uptown this year certainly shook up dining for the neighborhood, and New Orleans. It’s impossible to put Mister Mao in a box; it differentiates itself with a menu you won’t find anywhere else in town and a (nearly) overstimulating atmosphere to match. The journey might begin in the Miami-and-jungle-themed bar area for a shot or cocktail served in vintage glassware and a “drinking snack” like escargot Wellington. Once seated in the separate dining room, ordering from the global, Eastern-leaning menu could be complicated by enticing small plates, like bacalaitos, offered from a roving cart, styled after dim sum restaurants. Finally, there’s dessert. New Orleans pastry chef Sarah Cotton creates some of the most exciting desserts in town, like her version of the cold Indian dessert falooda, or a dark chocolate tart made with black garlic, malty peanut brittle, coconut cream, and candied cocoa nibs. It makes for a memorable meal during a muddled time.
4501 Tchoupitoulas St., Uptown