Raleigh's City Market, dating from 1914, is generations removed from the 18th-century Vieux Carre of New Orleans, yet its narrow cobblestone streets, sun-dappled sidewalks and historic brickwork seem just the home for Brian Battistella's ode to his hometown.
Whether it's the crunch and crisp of a fried shrimp po'boy or the earthy slurp of gumbo at lunch, whether it's a palate-teasing dinner of crawfish étouffée or pan-fried quail, Battistella's is the Triangle's newest purveyor of what its chef calls "classic New Orleans and upscale Southern cuisine."
Walk inside, and the interior whispers "French Quarter," but not the stage set of a frat boy's memory. No purple, green and gold, no doubloons strewn insouciantly on tables. Instead, black-and-white checkered floors and distressed walls create elegant layers of pattern that could as well be layers of history. Scraps of silken wallpaper give way to plaster, then rough-edged brick, while "hand-tinted" canvases of street scenes appear to hover off the wall.
A glossy nighttime snapshot of New Orleans' central business district spans one end of the bar like a window through space into which one might casually step. Nearby, sip a Sazerac while scouring news clippings from the Saints' 2010 Super Bowl victory. Adorning the kitchen door, where few will see it, is a stained-glass fleur-de-lis, a symbol of Louis XIV adopted by French Louisiana centuries ago.
Battistella perches on a barstool one recent Friday morning, with intense pale blue eyes, day-old auburn stubble and a focused expression. It's the mark of a new chef scrolling a hundred things in his head at once. Lunch service started last week, and the doors open in just minutes.
He adjusts the red bandanna across his forehead and transfers a small orange smear from his hand to his chef's whites.
"Tabasco?" I ask hopefully.
"No, ketchup," he smiles.
Battistella, 42, was born for this work. A child of the Ninth Ward, he recalls fetching bait for crab pots at his cousin Preston's wholesale seafood operation, also called Battistella's, which had been in the family for decades: "Preston's grandfather had one of the first seafood restaurants and seafood markets in the whole French Market on Decatur Street . . . Battistella's [was] a known name for seafood in New Orleans. But it's gone."
He says up front that he doesn't want to talk about Katrina. He refers more than once to the hurricane without explicitly saying it, much as New Yorkers talk about the autumn of 2001. "Before 2005" or "after 2005," he'll say, then "we don't have to harp on that."
Later, though, he points to a black-and-white photograph on the wall, taken of his family home in Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. It shows a pier, a small sandy beach and one or two modest structures on shore, but most notable is the calm, flat water and the promise of sea life beneath. He was living there year-round when Katrina came through.
"About 50 or a hundred feet out here was our boathouse. You could actually jump in that boat and get into the Gulf of Mexico in about an hour and a half. So that's where I lived. That's no longer there, obviously. That's clean beach now, yeah."
His words are heavy with the languid accent of South Louisiana, but they accelerate when he talks of the water: "I was raised on the water. We've always had the summer home on Lake Pontchartrain, gone crabbing. I always had between 30 and 40 crab traps and had the tanks [with] soft-shell crabs, an 18-foot shrimp boat with the trawler going on, so I've cooked and been interested in seafood all my life."
Battistella's expertise is good news for the Triangle's étouffée and gumbo aficionados, who are likely to utter an "aaaah" of recognition after tasting Battistella's versions. He's candid about his techniques, presumably because it's easier to frequent his restaurant than to try them at home.
"Seafood stock is a big part of it. If you've got the stock and the roux right, you've done half the battle ... We get the crawfish tails from down in Lafayette, they package 'em with a lot of the fat still left on, so that adds a ton of flavor, makes the chef look like he knows what he's doing, ya know? It's important to us not to just pour a bunch of cayenne pepper in it; we make our own blend of Creole seasoning. We build the flavor up with the stock and the roux, and those trinity vegetables—onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, tomato—start melting off into the sauce. People don't understand why it's so good. Well, it's flavor-intensive; you're cooking it for two hours. If it [weren't] any good we wouldn't be doing any of this."
Other than having an allergy to shrimp, there isn't one reason not to start a meal with the "New Orleans BBQ shrimp" ($9; appetizers $5 Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30–6:30 p.m.). Battistella models it on a famous recipe from Pascal's Manale restaurant in Uptown New Orleans.
"We sauté the shrimp with garlic, and toast the garlic off and deglaze with some shrimp stock, some Abita Amber and Worcestershire. We just fold some butter there; it creams it up, add fresh rosemary, finish it with salt and black pepper. It's not a barbecue sauce—it's a New Orleans barbecue sauce."
Folding in that pat of butter is a dead giveaway to the chef's training. In the late 1990s, he worked his way up the French brigade-style kitchen at the grande dame of Garden District dining, Commander's Palace, from chopping onions to sous chef under the legendary Jamie Shannon. Before that, Battistella worked at a south Louisiana slaughterhouse and as a saucier and butcher at Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House. His conventional education ended at high school.
"I've seen several culinary students come through Commander's Palace and they just didn't make it. During Mardi Gras season, we did 732 covers in one night, fine dining! You're pickin' up 12 New York strip, six quail, three veal chops. You got to go. You can't go to your book, you can't go sit down. I'm glad I saved my $50,000 and went to Commander's Palace University, I'll put it to you that way."
Battistella gestures often to his "source board" posted in the hallway. It documents in chalk that day's ingredients and their makers, from cane syrup to oysters to pepper sauce. Rare Earth Farms, co-owned by Battistella's business partner, Karl Hudson, frequently appears under meats. The restaurant diligently tries to serve meats that are Animal Welfare Approved.
As for desserts, sous chef Drew Hyams is the artist—with the exception of the exquisite pralines contributed by Battistella's mother, Debbie Reddoch, sold at a rather spare four for $8. Share a platter of Hyams' beignets (five for $8) or a serving of home-style bread pudding (a Battistella family recipe). The sweet potato pecan pie might please the boldest of sweeties but proved too cloying for our table of five. Hyams' sweet-tea pie, on the other hand, was the clear favorite: With candied lemon, it's delicate, creamy, nicely zesty.
For the next few weeks through Thanksgiving, look for deep-fried-turkey po'boys, and in the coming year expect to see Battistella's hosting City Market events like a crawfish boil, oyster roast, catfish fry and maybe a gumbo festival.
Throw some music in there and it really will feel like New Orleans.