Close to Home: Chef Susan Spicer creates an overnight sensation in Lakeview

On the Friday evening we dined at Chef Susan Spicer’s wildly popular new Mondo restaurant in Lakeview, every table was filled to capacity. While being escorted to our table, I spotted a few familiar faces and various local celebs in the crowd, including actor Bryan Batt, who is best known for playing Salvatore Romano on the AMC series Mad Men.

Due to the no-reservations policy, people were awaiting their tables at the swank 35-seat bar area, which has become popular with neighborhood folks since the 70-seat restaurant opened in June. The lively acoustics were kicked up a notch once we entered the dining area. We were seated on a raised platform near the open-hearth kitchen, and were able to hear each other comfortably enough with slightly raised voices. The lively mood was reminiscent of Galatoire’s on a Friday afternoon.

“My concept for Mondo was dictated by my living in Lakeview for the last 20 years,” Chef Spicer told me during a recent interview from Bayona in the French Quarter. The James Beard award-winning chef’s flagship French Quarter restaurant, Bayona, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, which is also when Chef Spicer came out with her first cookbook. In 2008, the famous New Orleans chef sold her interest in her other restaurant, Herbsaint, to Chef Donald Link (Cochon), while keeping her eyes peeled for real estate in the Lakeview neighborhood for Mondo.

Spicer has had a busy year. In June, her Bayona Corporation brought a class action lawsuit against BP on behalf of restaurants in the New Orleans area that have been impacted by the oil spill in the Gulf. “I’m like the Joan of Arc leading the charge,” she laughs. I recall listening to Chef Spicer being interviewed on NPR, and their calling her the “poster child” for the New Orleans restaurant industry’s battle against BP. “We’re now losing many of the smaller restaurants and seafood-related businesses that make up the fabric of the Gulf Coast,” she pointed out. “We don’t know how drastically this will affect our industry and culture.”

Spicer is also the chef-consultant for the HBO series Treme, about life in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. She teaches the cast cooking techniques, tweaks scripts, and is sometimes on set during restaurant scenes.

The Treme character, Chef Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens (Friday Night Lights, Deadwood) is loosely based on Spicer’s life but mainly on her legend as a major New Orleans restaurateur who courageously reopened Bayona shortly after the storm.

Located at 900 Harrison Avenue, just two minutes from Spicer’s home, Mondo is a casual alternative to Bayona, offering dishes inspired by global and local flavors as well as pizzas prepared in a wood-burning oven that is in full view of diners (there are four seats in front of the oven for those who want to get a bird’s eye view).

Expecting a casual dining experience, I was pleasantly surprised at the sophistication and beautiful presentation of the various dishes, although I have been familiar with Chef Spicer’s marvelous cooking for the past 30 years. She brings an innovative mentality to her work, which is always creative. Everything at Mondo is done well, from the refreshing herbal iced tea to the homemade bread (with a choice of olive oil or butter) and the luscious desserts and good coffee.

Some of my favorite appetizers so far have been the creamy crab toast tinged with tarragon and a hint of pepper (three to an order) and the wood-grilled artichoke with garlic and pecorino (three fragrant spears to an order), served in a casserole dish with a tub of creamy, garlicky aioli for dipping alongside wedges of tropical fruit. I also favor the chicken liver paté that occasionally runs as a special, served with toast points and fruit.

Appetizers are broken down into two categories, “snacks” and “starters.” My favorite two snacks: the Thai shrimp and pork meatballs on lemongrass skewers dressed up with sliced cucumbers and served with a tangy dipping sauce; and the marvelous stuffed eggs flavored with curry and shallots, each with a different garnish including Serrano ham and avocado. I have a thing for great stuffed eggs.

The most outstanding presentation among the entrees is the whole red snapper, crispy and lemony, which arrives dramatically at the table dressed up with bok choy and a medley of red and green bell peppers and kalamata olives on top. But I actually prefer the broiled Gulf fish du jour, which is presented with no less than three sauces: Muddy Waters (spicy), almondine, and meuniere. The slow-roasted pork shoulder with black beans, plantains, and pico de gallo is also excellent.

Bayona’s famous homemade ice creams and sorbets are available (try the fig pecan ice cream topped with a sprig of mint and a ginger snap wafer, and the refreshing orange basil sorbet). The lemon tart is fabulous, served with a dollop of crème fraiche and blackberries as garnish. I also recommend the cinnamon beignets, which are more like crepes, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Service is casual and friendly. The wait staff wears blue jeans, but they can rattle off ingredients in the various dishes as well as the staff at the more elegant Bayona.

Mondo is breathing new life into the recovering Lakeview area, and it is sure to be a hit for years to come. Like Bayona, which has been highly rated in the national press, Mondo is sure to draw accolades as the new rising star of New Orleans. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it inspires a new episode of Treme.


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