845 N. Carrollton Ave., New Orleans
NAPOLEON'S RATINIG - THREE STARS (out of four)
Toups' Meatery opened in Mid-City last spring as a combination of several worlds the fine-dining experience of its chef, Isaac Toups, the rustic traditions of his hometown in Cajun Country, and the neighborhood restaurant feel that fits so well in this part of town. When you have a craving for meat in all its flavorful glory, this place can put on quite a show.
This restaurant space was for many years the Mediterranean Cafe, and a thorough renovation has reconfigured it into a pair of dining rooms with a bar and a semi-open kitchen. The setting here is casual, the spaces are roomy but also minimal. It feels a little like you're dining at a couple's new house before they've had a chance to decorate. When it's busy, however, the collection of New Orleans people eating and gabbing around the rooms gives the place its own color. In nice weather, opt for sidewalk seating under the oak trees and watch the streetcar cruise past en route to City Park.
The service approach is generally on par with neighborhood restaurants. Though this place seems too casual to have a maitre d' but the manager here fulfills that role with gusto.
The name over the door at Toups' Meaty points the way to the recommended first course the meat plates assembled here are superb and could be the reason for a whole visit, never mind just a round of appetizers. The precise components of these big, rustic-style boards changes up frequently, but you can count on a half dozen items ranging from traditional boudin and headcheese to spicy salami and lamb tongue. Other appetizers tend to be large and should in almost all cases be shared. I like the meatballs with an interesting, Asian-style ginger-lemongrass barbecue sauce. Look also to the side dishes, where deviled eggs, boudin balls or fried, cheese-stuffed sweet peppers make great first courses.
There's a riff on BBQ shrimp and always a Gulf fish on the menu, but you're coming to Toups' Meatery for meat. I don't mean filet mignon either. The niche where Toups' Meatery really excels is getting the most flavor and excitement from less expensive cuts. The tri-tip steak is a great example. You don't see it's name on menus often, but here it proves a tender steak with lots of character, char and smoke from the grill, complemented by hollandaise. When we see confit, it's usually done with duck. Here, Toups uses chicken thighs, which play second fiddle to breast meat but are so much more flavorful, as the cooked-in-fat method emphasizes. The roasted duck, a half bird, cut length wise, was a bit dry, though the balsamic duck jus helped revive it some. The lamb neck is the most offbeat item, but so long as you don't mind picking through a lot of bones for the meat this dish is probably the most memorable too, with deep, marrow-laden flavor cut through by a minty chow chow relish. The pork chop is big enough to produce gasps as it lands at the table. They call it double cut but it seemed more than that even, yet remained tender and juicy throughout and only pink towards the considerable fat layer. These entrees are generally served as massive portions, but the appeal is what the kitchen does with them.
The regular menu is served at lunch, in addition to a few sandwiches and salads. A recent fried chicken sandwich topped with slaw and big slabs of brie was excellent, though I wish it had been on better bread than its sesame seed hamburger bun.
Desserts are basic and outsourced to a local baker who does business under the name Debbie Does Doberge. Slices of her classic doberge cake are the only options, but with their many layers of frosting and interesting flavors (salted caramel, blueberry) they're satisfying enough.
There is a full bar with a good selection of local drafts, plus a creative cocktail list. You can get some of these cocktails served by the pitcher to (hopefully) share around the table. There is an interesting wine list to complement the menu, though beyond a few bargains the prices range higher than you'd expect at a neighborhood restaurant.
Most entrees are priced between the mid-teens and low-twenties, which these days signals a mid-range menu. Split an appetizer and choose your drinks carefully and a couple should be able to do dinner here for about $80. Lunch specials take things down a notch during the day.
Toups' Meatery is hearty, unique, approachable, high quality and utterly enjoyable, reflecting its chef's passions and its neighborhood's vibe and showcasing creative dishes that can easily turn into repeat cravings. Come hungry and bring friends.