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Thu November 19, 2009
A Bistro's Third Act
By Ian McNulty
New Orleans, LA –
New Orleanians know all too well the frustrations of getting a home back in shape after a disaster, and many can relate to the travails of opening a small business here anytime at all. Estimates of time and cost fly past unheeded, and entire projects can be held up for the want of a simple signature or stamp. Surely, there's a temptation to give up. But thanks to our love of specific places, our attachment to our buildings and our neighborhoods, and just the pride of holding fast when the world tries to shake you, jobs get done and our city gets stitched back together.
That's the reason chef Greg Picolo has stuck by his restaurant, the Bistro at Maison de Ville. And it's the reason why in the four years since Katrina he has committed the effort to reopen it not once, but three times.
The Bistro is a tiny French Quarter restaurant that has made a disproportionately large impact on the New Orleans dining scene. Its original chef was Susan Spicer, who went on to open Bayona. Her replacement was John Neal, along with his sous chef Anne Kearney. They left together when Neal decided to open his own restaurant, Peristyle, which Kearney took over following her mentor's death. Chef Dominique Maquet had a stint there, followed by a few others.
Greg Picolo joined the restaurant in 1992. He was executive chef when the Katrina levee failures brought New Orleans to its knees, and he was there to reopen it at a time when each restaurant return felt like another small victory for the battered city.
But in June 2006, the restaurant's owners decided to close the Bistro until some unspecified later date. Months passed and seasons changed. Behind the scenes, however, Greg Picolo and new business partners were working up a new deal to buy and run the restaurant themselves. In May 2007, the chef reopened the Bistro for the second time.
And almost exactly two years later, just this past May, a fire ripped through the Bistro's French Quarter neighbor, the Tropical Isle bar. Smoke damage from the blaze forced the Bistro to close, and it was no ordinary smoke. The fire consumed hundreds of cases of tall green cups for the bar's signature cocktail, releasing plastic fumes. Rehabbing everything at the Bistro from ductwork to the artwork after that exposure was a huge undertaking.
However, the chef felt he had something at the Bistro that was nontransferable. His cuisine mixes French, Italian and Creole styles, but he believes the end result is also a product of his tiny restaurant's miniscule kitchen. It's a galley really, where he and his lieutenants must by necessity hover over each phase of every dish. And then there are the peculiarities of the old, cloistered French Quarter place, like the open-air passage between kitchen and pantry, and the slender, urbane dining room where somehow the sense of both romance and bonhomie increase as it grows more crowded.
As much as New Orleanians know the frustration of rebuilding, they also recognize how such little intangibles help cement a unique identity and can inspire a lot of devotion. And that's why Greg Picolo's fans were not surprised to learn that five months after the fire he managed to reopened the Bistro. . .again.
Bistro at Maison de Ville
727 Toulouse St., New Orleans