By JOHN DeMERS
It was the tail end of the ‘80s, and you all know what that means. Among other things, it meant that New Orleans was still eating like it was the ‘60s. At the latest. Until, that is, a chef named Mike Fennelly left his job heading up Santacafé in Santa Fe and joined a sizzling blonde named Vicky Bayley to open Mike’s on the Avenue.
Typically, I wouldn’t use words like “sizzling blonde” in a food article, but Vicky wasn’t shy about being Vicky – in all the magazine photo shoots and advertisements that came with adulation in New Orleans, regionally and even nationally. Through it all, Mike did what Mike did best: cover the walls and waiters’ ties with his art (his other job, though which is his “day job” remains hard to tell), introduce New Orleans to a host of words and philosophical ideas from Japan (who knew!) and cook food that blended the best local stuff with dramatic Asian and Southwestern flavors. Sure, every 16-year-old chef whining for his own Food Network show is cooking this way today. But in New Orleans circa 1989, it was a revolution.
Whenever I tell people who remember Mike’s about my recent incredible meals there, they exclaim, “Oh is that place still there?” No, but it is there again.
Mike’s closed in 1999 after a near-mythical decade-long run. By that time, Mike had moved on to San Francisco and eventually Hawaii, following his art. Vicky too moved on to other restaurant and non-restaurant projects (the latter list headed by her children). No doubt her best and brightest eatery was called Artesia, in the woods on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain and featuring a then less-than-celebrity chef with an engaging grin, John Besh. It’s hard to say how many life forces – and it would take centuries of Asian philosophy to understand them – inspired Mike and Vicky to return to reinvent themselves again at a new Mike’s on the Avenue, in the very same location inside the Lafayette Hotel overlooking St. Charles Avenue.
More than breakfast at Brennan’s, more than dinner at Arnaud’s, a meal at Mike’s with the streetcar rumbling by outside the glass lets me imagine that I’m a whole lot younger than I am now, that time itself has warped backwards with pounds and gray hairs melting away. The menu includes everything I remember from the original Mike’s, plus a whole lot of new dishes that reflect the chef’s journey from then to now. Most amazingly, it still seems and tastes revolutionary. Of all the time-bending miracles within these art-covered walls, this one has to top the list. Every chef in America is cooking this no-holds-barred, chefs-without-borders kind of food now. So… how in the hell does dinner at Mike’s still taste like the first time?
As befits Mike’s culinary style (and, back in 1989, pointed to the exciting, innovative appetizers we now take for granted), the best way to start here and now is, well, at the beginning. Order three apps for the table and they all can be Mike’s signature items: the shrimp and spinach dumplings with unexpected tahini sauce, the crawfish spring rolls with chile-lime sauce, and the biggest blast from the past of all, Mike’s barbecued oysters. Neither Texas barbecue nor the ignorantly named New Orleans-Sicilian “barbecued shrimp,” these sweet-hot oysters on the half shell make certain you never dream of Rockefeller or Bienville again.
When it comes time for your entrée, go with whatever grabs you in terms of main ingredient – knowing it won’t be boring. One of my current faves, a must-have whenever I visit New Orleans, is Mike’s crab and crawfish cakes – three small, delightfully crusty rounds topped with three small toppings sure to make Texans happy: remoulade, salsa and guacamole. There’s a terrific New York strip with even more terrific mashed potatoes (I can’t guess why, but they are some of the best ever). And at one recent lunch, there was even a shrimp tikka masala, Mike’s quirky spin on the Indian “chicken curry” dish that’s now described as “the national dish of Great Britain.”
Desserts at the new-old Mike’s on the Avenue are often Hawaiian-ish and very easy to love. Best bet is the lilikoi cheesecake, its bright-looking and bright-tasting tropical fruit sauce giving purpose to the light, fluffy version of an American classic. If you need one more finale for the table, consider the “deconstructed” banana cream pie. Though I couldn’t resist making my usual bitter joke about chefs “deconstructing” everything – you know, the one ending “I wish they’d just leave it all together” – this is a banana split taken a million delicious miles from the old neighborhood soda fountain.
Mike’s on the Avenue is again one of the unforgettable restaurants New Orleans has gifted to the world. Stop in soon and tell Mike and Vicky thanks for letting me feel young again. Now, if they could just do something to fix the mirror…