Photo by Brenda Maitland
Boston and radicchio salad with citrus sections and blue cheese.
The white tablecloth dining scene in New Orleans has never been as “on fire” as it has over the past year. The list of new restaurants opening in New Orleans continues to amaze with more than a dozen stylish new eateries.
However, opening a new restaurant—even if the space was previously another dining spot—is always a huge undertaking. Many elements need to be addressed and coordinated in addition to the main concerns of diners—the service and the food—which makes creating a successful operation a very complicated process.
However, when everything comes together smoothly, seamlessly and “in sync,” it is both a wonder and delight.
At Annunciation—which opened in July—collaborative efforts between principals, managers, designers, craftsmen, cooks and service staff have yielded the rewards of a packed-house nearly every night in the popular Warehouse District’s newest eatery.
To begin, chef and co-owner Steve Manning, a highly accomplished chef best known for his many years at Clancy’s, and his business partners assembled a team of passionate performers to bring the restaurant concept to fruition.
After Manning left Clancy’s to open his own restaurant, he went looking for a different location, a neighborhood that had an urban vitality.
He explained that he’d worked uptown for so long, he never seemed to get out of the area, so he was looking for a place with a different vibe.
Manning said, “I was considering Freret Street,” which has undergone a tremendous renaissance in the past year, “and then we found this building which housed a long time casual, neighborhood eatery which had recently closed.”
The old Deanie’s—not connected to the Bucktown and French Quarter seafood restaurants—primarily served as a cafeteria, plate lunch type diner for area workers.
As the Warehouse District blossomed into an upscale residential and arts mecca following the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair, more sophisticated restaurants and nightspots came into play, notably Emeril’s, Rio Mar, La Boca, Tommy’s Cuisine, Cochon, A Mano, 7 on Fulton, Grand Isle and more recently, Rene Bistro in the Renaissance Arts Hotel.
This was just the kind of energy Manning and crew were seeking. But what to do with the building?
When the owners met with Karina Gentinetta, a lawyer turned designer, there was no need to look any further. Gentinetta had been profiled in a New York Times piece last year on how she drew the plans, designed and furnished a new—yet historic looking—cottage to replace the Lakeview home she lost in the levee break following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
The Argentine-born Gentinetta, who brought her husband, A.J. McAlear, to the interview with her, wowed the owners, but McAlear also charmed them.
After many years in the wine, spirits and restaurant business, he was currently managing the bar at the Pelican Club. During the interview, the new restaurant owners approached him about working at Annunciation a few nights a week. After a week or two, the partners asked him to become general manager.
Meanwhile, Gentinetta went to work with the construction crew, ripping out the lowered tile ceilings to reveal a twenty-foot high, exposed beam ceiling. Her vision included all white walls. “I wanted the food and the people to become the ‘color’ of this place,” she said, “and, A.J. could fill up the bar with bottles of various colored spirits.”
Several walls feature exposed bare brick, providing a rustic, historic character to the interior. With a minimal design budget, she researched Paris bistros for the lighting and found the bygone era’s stylistic old schoolhouse lights—now trendy—at Lowe’s. Gentinetta also was the artist for three large black and white canvasses strategically situated on the bare white walls.
A climate controlled, clear glassed-in wine cellar next to the granite topped bar holds the restaurant’s stock of nearly a hundred labels.
A second floor remains untouched but may fill a need for private event space sometime in the future. Meanwhile, the busy staff have their hands—and plates—full.
McAlear manages the service staff, runs the bar—creating several inventive new variations on classic drinks—and works with one of the business partners on the wine list.
“We’re small,” he continued, “We rely on regular customers frequenting our place. It’s important that they always feel welcome and comfortable.”
To that end, the amiable host/greeter/maitre d’, Richard Williams, has been a terrific asset. “I am really pleased with our staff,” said McAlear. “From the beginning, they worked together very well and learned from each other.”
In the kitchen, the pots are on the stove, the bread is in the oven and the culinary artistry is on the plate. The talented team assembled by Chef Manning is putting their best efforts front and center.
When Manning left Clancy’s, he took his right hand man along. Annunciation Chef de Cuisine Ronald Carr, a veteran of sixteen years in Susan Spicer’s renowned Bayona kitchen, and her sous chef until Katrina struck, collaborates with Manning on menu items.
The ever-changing menu reflects some of the signature dishes that Manning created at Clancy’s. He also references dishes he developed when he was at Gautreau’s prior to Clancy’s and from his years at his New York restaurant, Bayou.
Seasonal availability creates variations in the dishes offered. Recent appetizers included turtle soup, shrimp remoulade, fried oysters with melted brie and sautéed spinach, and veal sweetbreads with gnocchi, pancetta and mushrooms.
Other recent starter choices were marinated crab claws with lime and cilantro, fried green tomatoes with crabmeat and peppered Hollandaise and crabmeat salad with basil green goddess sauce.
Featured entrées on a recent visit showcased Manning’s heralded fried soft shell crab with crabmeat and Meuniere sauce, along with spaghettini Bordelaise with fried oysters, sautéed black drum with crabmeat and coconut milk, and shrimp étouffée.
For more meaty dishes, guests could choose veal Oscar, grilled hanger steak with shallot demi-glaze, slow roasted pork shoulder with sweet onion relish and black eyed peas, veal Annunciation, and pan roasted chicken bonne femme.
Chef Manning’s contemporary Creole cooking style includes more vegetarian dishes than ever before. Recent sides presented diners with options of fried eggplant, sesame asparagus, roasted baby bok choy, hash browned Brussels sprouts, cauliflower au gratin, creamed spinach, stir fried cabbage with Kari leaves and black mustard seed, black-eyed peas and Southern style mashed yams.
Manning’s top rated lemon icebox pie was a recent dessert offering as were peach bread pudding and coconut pie.
Incumbent with their desire to please and be a good neighbor, the Annunciation crew elected to keep the decades-old tradition of the former eatery by offering reasonably-priced lunch choices Monday-Friday.
For example, for $7-$12, Creole gumbo, red beans and rice with sausage or pork chop, grilled chicken or shrimp salad, fried fish or shrimp plates, pork chop plate, baked chicken with barbecue sauce and baked fish with oyster dressing are offered, along with $2-$5 sides of potato salad, mustard greens, cornbread, green beans, and macaroni and cheese.
McAlear notes, “My main goal is to have people feel good about their Annunciation experience. In the first six months most new restaurants do very well, but it’s the next six months that are more crucial. I’ve learned as a restaurateur, you must embrace everything that comes your way, to make sure that this initial response continues.”
Manning feels the vibe he was reaching for, and sees it in the volume of repeat customers enjoying the restaurant. “It is fortuitous how everything has come together," he said. "I am really excited."
• Fried Soft Shell Crab with Crabmeat and Meunière Sauce • Boston Salad • Crabmeat Remick • Fried Oysters and Brie • Veal Chop with Roasted Tomato Demi-Glace and Spaetzle Details. Details. Details. Annunciation 1016 Annunciation Street New Orleans, La. (504) 568-0245 Lunch: Monday—Friday, 11 am–2 pm. Dinner: Monday—Saturday, 5:30 pm–10 pm.