900 Harrison Ave.,
New Orleans, LA 70124
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Nothing signals a restaurant's intent to serve as a casual, family-friendly neighborhood eatery quite like the appearance of a kids menu. That's true of Mondo, but there's something different about this particular neighborhood eatery. It was opened in Lakeview in the spring of 2010 by chef Susan Spicer, who has won national acclaim over the past 20 years at her flagship restaurant Bayona. Working closely with chef du cuisine Cindy Crosbie and sous chef Paul Schel, Spicer has crafted Mondo into a gallery of global comfort food.
This Lakeview address has been many different restaurants through the years, and most recently it was a place called Lago. For Mondo, the bar and dining room were thoroughly renovated, and even though the ceilings are rather low the rooms have a very warm feel, with lots of bare wood and soothing colors. The restaurant does get quite loud, however. The bar is a good area for quick bites or unplanned evenings.
Mondo can get slammed, and when the dining room is really rocking it seems that the kitchen or the service can't quite keep up. This can lead to some uncomfortably long gaps in a meal, especially one with kids along for the ride. Given more calm conditions, this issue vanishes and in any case the servers I met were accommodating and well-informed about the offbeat menu.
Mondo mixes Louisiana standards with dishes from all corners of the world, and there seems always to be a twist. This is all made abundantly clear with the appetizers (and a related menu section called "snacks," which amount to finger-food appetizers). Crab toasts, for instance, seem like cocktail party fare, though not so much as the trio of deviled eggs with curry and avocado fillings. But then there's fried hominy with chiles and lime and chilled Asian buckwheat noodles with peanut sauce and sunflower seeds. This is a menu where ceviche duels for attention with steak tartare.
The confluence of influences continues right on through the entrees. Someone at your table might be digging into the shrimp with smothered okra, which is like shrimp Creole bulked up with okra and done in a simple way you rarely see out - the okra just pan-fried and toothsome, mixed with lots of tomatoes and Creole seasoning. It would be the pride of many a home stovetop. Next to that, though, someone could be eating the braised duck leg, aromatic with Chinese seasoning and laid over a fried turnip cake with bok choy. Across the table, someone else could have the steamed mussels with bits of Spanish chorizo or the broiled lamb slathered with mint-flecked pepper jelly and served with handmade, goat cheese-filled cups of pasta.
One standout is the smoky, tender, Latin-style roasted pork shoulder with black beans, plantains and pico de gallo. Another is the redfish served with "muddy waters sauce," which is a salty, buttery, slightly piquant sauce spiked up with anchovy and jalapeno. The menu includes pizzas from a wood-fired oven, and while these are good (with bubbly crusts and gourmet toppings like arugula and goat cheese) I recommend ordering one of them as an appetizer to split rather than as an entrée. They're too small to be the main event.
Brunch sees a repeat of many of the dinner items, with the addition of egg dishes, including Mexican carnitas with pork and tortillas, and chicken and dumplings, here made with sturdy biscuits. Lunch features an array of sandwiches, of which my favorites are the Vietnamese-style shrimp banh mi with copious fresh herbs and peppers and the hot pastrami with luscious Comté cheese. Entrée size across the board is a notch smaller than we're used to around here, especially at the neighborhood restaurant level.
One good thing about the relatively modest entrée portions at Mondo is that they do leave room for dessert, and you don't want to miss these. The cinnamon beignets are particularly good. Dip them in the yogurt sauce they disappear quite fast. Perhaps the signature dessert comes from the wood-burning oven. That's the flaugnarde, which is a thick crepe, almost like a bread pudding, covered in fresh berries and powdered sugar.
Mondo maintains a robust wine list that would be the envy of plenty of other restaurants. There are few bargains on it, though, especially in light of the neighborhood restaurant format intended here. Some less expensive options, even a respectable carafe wine, would encourage people to sip with their suppers more in the context of this family-friendly dining room. The bar makes some creative cocktails, though many of these are quite costly too. I usually drink beer here.
This is the mid-priced neighborhood restaurant everyone says they want in their neighborhood, though just how "mid-priced" it feels when the bill arrives naturally depends on the way you order. Entrees average $16 or $17 and most first courses are between $5 and $8. A few $9 cocktails or wines by the glass can up the ante quickly, however.
Susan Spicer clearly intended Mondo to be a much more modest, laidback venture than the restaurants where she made her name, but there's still no missing the chef's interest in eclectic, globetrotting cuisine, nor her bedrock culinary craft. Both are in evidence all across the Mondo experience, and they demonstrate that simple, everyday food needn't be hollow.