The Pick of the Bywater

New Orleans, La. –

You know regulars really treasure a particular restaurant when they begin protesting a menu change.

In the case of Satsuma Cafe in New Orleans, that change was to nix fresh kale for a while when local farmers who grow that burly, vitamin-packed green cycled more summer crops through their beds. Customers expressed anguish when informed of the change at the cafe counter and a few shared their disappointment in notes on Satsuma's Facebook page. The common theme read something like this: "Nooooooo!!!!!!"

Don't worry, kale fans, the famously nutritious green now still turns up at the cafe, and will be in more abundance as fall sets in. Still, the response was a vivid illustration of the pitfalls of tying a menu closely to the food that local farmers grow and that local seasons allow. Fine-dining chefs at high-end restaurants know this well, and it's increasingly common to hear them crowing about their local ingredients and relationships with area farmers. But few places at the casual end of the restaurant scene embrace this revived farm-to-table approach like Satsuma Cafe.

This place looks and feels like a funky neighborhood coffee shop tucked into one of the city's funkiest neighborhood's, the Bywater. In its prior incarnation, this colorful old brick building was indeed primarily a coffee shop and today it still fills that role for some customers. But what's really drawn attention to this place isn't the coffee so much as the crops.

The dining format may be laid back, but there's a great deal of hustle that goes on behind the scenes to pull it all off. Cassi and Peter Dymond opened Satsuma Cafe in 2009, and the young couple took their cue from restaurants they'd visited in other cities, everyday places where the farm-to-table aesthetic was in full bloom. To replicate that ideal here, they had to cultivate a network from among a constellation of small suppliers all around the region. Some are practically Bywater neighbors, others are more far-flung, and patronizing them often means going directly to the source. Eventually, the proprietors traded their little Toyota Corolla and buy a cargo van to accommodate the fresh hauls they collect.

The results are breakfast plates and juices, lunch salads and sandwiches, all revved up by vividly fresh, locally-grown groceries. Earthy, springy-textured, locally-foraged mushrooms might go into scrambled eggs, which were themselves first collected from chickens still pecking away in the same zip code. The same blueberries sold at the Crescent City Farmers Market might plump up the cafe's pancakes the same morning. In the spring, you could find a short-run of fava beans. In the summer, chanterelle mushrooms and fat Creole tomatoes each had their time in the spotlight.

The difficulty, of course, as the kale fanatics earlier expressed, is that just when you've found a favorite dish the menu is liable to change. But the flip side is the compelling thrill of anticipation. As some staples cycle off the menu, others are gearing up. It won't be long, after all, before local citrus, including the namesake satsuma, begin appearing here, and with it the promise of cooler Louisiana citrus weather. At Satsuma Cafe, the seasonal goods always seem ready for their close ups.

Satsuma Cafe
3218 Dauphine St., New Orleans, 504-304-5962