736 Dante St
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating: ****/*****
Dante's Kitchen has been around since 2000, but this Riverbend bistro's focus on seasonal foods, local sourcing and house-made staples puts it in line with the hot trends guiding some of the area's newest restaurants. Few put it all together quite as well as this kitchen, where all those great groceries go into an inventive, always-changing menu. It embraces Creole flavor and the New Orleans sense of place and spikes it all up with influences from around the globe.
Dante's is in an old Uptown cottage that's been expanded and cut-up into today's restaurant while still retaining that cottage feel. The colorful collection of small rooms lends a sense of intimacy, though the place is always bustling and it can get quite loud. The lush patio is the place to be when the weather is nice. Beware, however, that bugs can be a persistent nuisance out there, seemingly swarming from the landscaping. If you sit outside, look for the communal bug spray by the front gate and take precautions.
Waiters do a great job explaining and interpreting an always-changing menu that has a lot to offer, and much of it less than familiar. The approach is more casual and easygoing than what you find at other restaurants at this price range, but it fits with the ambiance of Dante's overall. The tradeoff for sitting in the patio, however, is that service tends to lag out there, farther away from the kitchen, the bar and the restaurant's nerve center.
The first thing to hit the table is a skillet of spoon bread, a soft, buttery, very hot serving of house cornbread that could double as pie. But don't fill up. There's a lot of eating to do here. In addition to appetizers, there's a list of "small plates," which can fill the role of light entrée or, better yet, shared first course. Among the proper appetizers, the shrimp and grits are a classic and the escargot with bacon and goat cheese is another go-to, while the pot likka is something a bit different. It's roast beef debris in gravy, which you smear on grilled bread with fig mustard. For small plates, look for the bacon-wrapped scallops or the tangle of Asian-style noodles with crab claws, pork and miso broth. An assortment of fresh vegetable side dishes can also be first course, shared sides or as the building blocks for an all-vegetable dinner.
There's always something new on the entrée list here, but then there are a few dishes that will always be there too. In that latter category, there's "chicken roasted under a brick," which comes out like a chef's version of barbecue; there's the "trios mignons," a trio of steak done with debris, with house-made Worcestershire and with Stilton; and finally, perhaps the best, "redfish on the half shell," a huge slab of well-seasoned fish grilled with the skin on one side and covered with lump crab meat and a mix of fresh herbs. Simple, deftly done and irresistible. Of the changeable entrees, two recent examples are representative: "tuna two ways," plated as lightly seared slices beside a marinated tartar, and confit pork steak with spare ribs, done in a spicy tomato sauce with samosa stuffed with field peas.
Even if you're the type who usually skips dessert, the list here is worth exploring. It's as novel and delicious as the rest of the menu, expressing the Dante's approach through sweets rather than savories. The dessert list changes up quite a bit too. A blueberry olive oil cake with lemon honey syrup was offbeat, as was the chocolate version of angel food cake served with Mexican hot chocolate gelato.
Dante's drinks menu starts off with a specialty cocktail list, and it follows the local sourcing and house-made approach just like the food menu. Bourbon is infused with peaches, for instance, and fresh herbs garnish other drinks. The wine list is long and deep, though a few more by-the-glass options would be nice.
Dante's Kitchen is on par with other local fine-dining restaurants, with most appetizers hovering around $9 and $10 and most entrees in the low- to mid-$20 range. A couple should expect to spend about $120 for dinner with drinks. Brunch is significantly less expensive, with dishes coming in under $15.
The perfect meal at Dante's Kitchen feels like a farm truck pulled up at the kitchen door and a skilled chef went to work with whatever was delivered. The freshness of the starting ingredients is second to none, and they're put to use in refreshingly inventive, wide-ranging ways. The setting is crowded, colorful, lively, loud and a bit freewheeling, which can be great fun if you're willing to go with the flow. This is a highly satisfying and original restaurant really hitting its stride.