Acclaimed restaurateurs Kenneth LaCour and Kim Kringle of the elegant Cuvée and Dakota restaurants (popular with wine connoisseurs) have rolled out their latest hit, Rambla. The Basque-influenced restaurant, located just off the grand lobby of the International House hotel on Camp Street in New Orleans, has jewel-tone furnishings, soft lighting, and large square tables where patrons can eat communally. Tapas, or small plates, are the stars of the show but you can forego grazing and go for large plates as well (tip: don’t miss the paella).
The hip music, crimson walls, swank mirrors, large photos of New Orleans, and a view of the bustling street through decorative iron gates provides a fun atmosphere for gathering with friends while enjoying free-flowing sangria and the artistic culinary creations of Chef Scott Maki. Before taking the head position at Rambla, Chef Maki worked with Emeril Lagasse and was a former sous chef at Emeril’s flagship restaurant in the Warehouse District and at Emeril’s Delmonico on St. Charles Avenue. He has a thorough command of the culinary arts and ingeniously interprets Mediterranean classics with a contemporary flair.
With the added perk of valet parking at International House, guests arrive in the softly lit lobby aglow with candles and take in the romantic ambience of the lobby, walking past the ever-popular bar Loa, where young professionals meet and greet in a seductive Old World/New World atmosphere enhanced by crystal chandeliers and candelabras. At the end of the lobby is Rambla, which is where the fun begins.
“We are doing authentic Spanish and French food,” Chef Maki explains. “This includes old school items like duck cassoulet, mussels Provencal, and there is a new twist on things such as ham and parsley terrine, and duck paté. We make all our terrines from scratch.”
Originally from Michigan, Chef Maki has been in the Big Easy for the past five years. “I love it here in New Orleans,” he exclaims while rushing back to the kitchen to turn out something wonderful like spinach balls glazed with truffle-flecked crème fraiche, or his version of barbecue shrimp engulfed in a fragrant herb butter redolent of fresh herbs. Medjool dates wrapped with house-smoked bacon are enhanced with a hint of minced Marcona almonds, resulting in a sweet and salty, smooth and crunchy yin-yang taste explosion. Triangles of flatbread with caramelized onion and fresh herbs render a long, sweet finish on the palate.
The sangria is poured and Chef Maki continues to work his magic in the kitchen. The tapas are spread out on the large square tables with raised seating, as friends share such marvels as an earthy roast duck cassoulet with a smoky afterglow that is served in a paella pan; it is the kind of unforgettable, nurturing dish that one longs for on a cold winter’s night. The paella arrives, studded with fresh mussels, calamari, bulbous shrimp dressed up for the occasion with their little tail shells on, and plump chunks of moist chicken. Fragrant with oodles of saffron, the tomato based rice dish is the star of the moment. Everyone hums with satisfaction. Thin layers of potatoes, redolent of smoked paprika and garlic from the aioli, are topped with a sprinkling of rustic cheddar, while cubed potatoes arrive glossed with a velvety hollandaise. As the meat pies melt in our mouths, and the grilled octopus with lemon oil renders a pleasant tang, more sangria arrives to help us continue the tapas pace. Rambla presents New Orleans with a fresh new dining perspective, one that is being embraced by locals and visitors alike, including grazing enthusiasts like myself.
Sharing the spotlight with Chef Maki’s food are terrific specialty cocktails and a focused wine list that specializes in varietal offerings from Spain and France, in addition to North America. While enjoying your tapas, order the Spanish 75, which is a take-off on New Orleans’ famous French 75 cocktail. It is made with LePanto Brandy de Jerez, fresh lemon, and Cava. Another hit is the Goodnight St. Nick prepared with Sazerac rye, fresh cranberries, oranges, maple syrup, and aged Whiskey Barrel bitters. But our favorite at the moment is the sangria, a house specialty, made with red and white wine, fresh fruit juices, and brandy.
While visiting New Orleans, this hip new place is not to be missed. It is open later than most, with dinner being served until 11 pm and until midnight on weekends. Lunch is served to a cool crowd with a compelling mix of personalities and nationalities. They come to soak up the jazzy atmosphere while enjoying leisurely snacking, drinking, and lively conversation. A swank 90-seat restaurant that feels like a club, Rambla is sure to make its unique mark on the New Orleans dining scene.