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Counting Losses and Blessings

By Ian McNulty

New Orleans, LA –

The Katrina anniversary is naturally when we look back on all that's happened since the disaster, for better or worse. In the realm of New Orleans restaurants, there's a lot to consider, not lest being the roll call of lost restaurants.

I think about the garlicky Creole dishes from Mandich and the edgy cuisine at Marisol, the fettuccine at Bella Luna and Friday lunches at Gabrielle, the seafood at Sid Mar's and Brunings, the French-style steaks at Chateaubriand and the stained glass windows at Christian's, the huge catfish plates at Barrow's Shady Inn and the burgers at Michael's Mid-City Grill.

There are many, many others, and the ones you miss most probably speak to the personal relationship you had with them - neighborhood joints, special venues where you celebrated with loved ones, restaurants that might have held a place in your own family traditions.

The late reemergence of restaurants like Charlie's Steakhouse last summer or the original Bud's Broiler last spring show that it's hard to count a place out for good. But by this point, it seems clear that some restaurants are permanent casualties. The building that housed Christian's in Mid-City has reverted to its former role as a church, for instance. Mandich is still boarded up, and Chateaubriand is now a sushi restaurant.

As much as Katrina cost New Orleans, however, the experience overall has not been a setback for its culinary heritage. On the contrary, I believe the city's close call with oblivion had has reminded people of just how important our food culture is, and brought us closer to it. At the same time, it has led some to make new contributions to the fray.

The Katrina experience seems to have inspired a carpe diem response, and it's not surprising that in food-obsessed New Orleans that now-or-never impulse translates to lots of new restaurants. Gelato parlors have proliferated across town, along with new coffee shops, po-boy restaurants and much more ambitious ventures.

The post-Katrina period has been marked by the rise of young, new chefs opening their very first restaurants. My favorite such story concerns the restaurant Iris.

Before the storm, Ian Schnoebelen and Laurie Casebonne talked frequently about opening their own restaurant together. But the prospect remained one of those things to pursue "one day." They found themselves in Birmingham, Alabama after Katrina struck, and in the limbo of those first weeks they thought it might be their new home. But while driving through the French Quarter during a trip back to retrieve belongings, they turned on a point and decided they couldn't stay away. They bought a closed Uptown restaurant in its entirety -- from furniture to the stocked bar -- and soon opened the place as Iris, serving an eclectic cuisine. The next year, Schnoebelen was named to Food & Wine magazine's list of the top 10 new chefs in the nation. And in 2009 he and Casebonne moved their restaurant to its current, much-larger space in the French Quarter.

It's sobering to think back to what Katrina took from us four years ago, even in just the realm of restaurants. But to consider what our chefs and culinary entrepreneurs have accomplished since, I feel hopeful, and also very hungry.

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