Johnny Sanchez New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Review by Paul Oswell
“No, I’m serious. It really is.”
“This is a Mexican restaurant…by…John Besh? How is that even possible and why would we want to go there?”
I’m trying to cut some slack given my friend’s cynicism here. I don’t think many people in the city realise that the first half of this year-old restaurant’s name comes from its most revered gastronomic son. Chef Besh has so marinated his own reputation in the local flavours of Louisiana that there’s an understandable leap of faith involved here.
“It’s not just him. The Sanchez part is Aaron Sanchez. He’s kind of an expert.”
“He’s on TV.”
“OH. OK. Well, I’m intrigued.”
Headway made, not that I default to describing chefs by their televisual credits, but Sanchez’s appearances on Chopped and more don’t hurt. I guess we’re going to give these two hugely acclaimed, panoramically-skilled chefs a chance, then.
New Orleans isn’t a town built on great Mexican food. Sure, there are a couple of cheerful burrito-mongers for quick fixes but nobody has really donned a glittery mask and wrestled with some of the more technical regional intricacies before this Besh-Sanchez tag team hopped into the ring.
The dining room is cavernous and colourful, all Day of the Dead iconography and modernist chandeliers. It strikes an immediate balance between formal and fiesta, and is big enough to provide some much-needed breathing space between the post-convention business drones and the cocktail-slurping bachelorette parties.
Not that we’re averse to cocktails, the mezcals and tamarinds of the drinks menu luring us in from the get-go. I’ve always been fond of the assured friendliness of the servers and staff at Besh joints, and even though the formality here is a notch lower, their sincerity and knowledge are equally reassuring.
It goes without saying that guacamole and chips are ordered as we look at the menu. The weird silence as this happens turns out to be a serious allergy to avocado on the part of my dining companion so that turns into a side order of EpiPens and an instruction to keep the bowl well onto my side of the table.
Even a quick look at the menu sees the culinary sparring and trading of ideas that has taken place between Johnny and Sanchez. Blue crab and shrimp come out punching from Louisiana, landing perfectly on the tostadas and tomatillos respectively.
We take on a haul of tacos, also representing both sides well, with crispy P&J oysters as well as barbecued beef and a carne asada with some delightful pickled jalapenos.
There are some nice home touches – a signature Besh move but taken up by Sanchez in his Mama’s epazote rice and we order the street corn as it was a dish that my date’s father would make when she was young. No restaurant food ever occupies the same emotional space as family-made versions, but it passes muster for her and I’m totally sold.
A notably quirky quesadilla with wild mushrooms and chicken enchiladas that remain memorable for the right reasons due to the meat being slow-cooked round off our food choices, as much as we could eat losing out very slightly to as much as we wanted to eat. More news on a rematch in the near future, I’m hoping.
A couple of glasses of sparkling rose give us a fighting chance of sharing dessert, the only real contender for both of us being the dulce de leche and coconut flan, dispatched with aplomb as we made more server friends and talked about plans to visit another of Besh’s collaborators, Chef Alon Shaya (in his new restaurant, Shaya), as soon as was logistically possible.
We left a dining room that exuded acceptably raucous bonhomie, a feat for its size. This guy Johnny Sanchez knows his Mexican onions alright, and he definitely sounds more of an expert than Aaron Besh.