With the Sugar Bowl and the BCS National Championship in New Orleans this month, crowds are descending on the French Quarter for good food and great times. Award-winning Chef Duke LoCicero, known as the “Duke of Decatur” (he is president of the Upper Decatur Street Association) offers a unique dining experience at his popular Café Giovanni located at 117 Decatur Street near Canal Street. Opera singers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday entertain guests who linger over the chef’s sumptuous “new world” Italian cuisine.
On a cold, windy night we entered the restaurant through the softly lit Belli Baci bar, with its plush décor and evocative paintings, and headed to our table as a young woman played romantic melodies on the grand piano. As the appetizers were being presented, three opera singers began strolling around the tables, singing their hearts out in perfect harmony. The large, elegant dining room was filled with lively chatter and the clinking of glasses.
“This is my 16th anniversary,” said Chef Duke. “I started when I was 30 years old. I was good looking when I first started,” he chided. The chef is a popular radio personality on his provocative “Dig In” radio show, which airs on 1350 AM from 12-1 pm Saturdays. “I do the show with my brother, Rock LoCicero, about everything that is going on in New Orleans.”
The appetizers began appearing at our table of seven diners. The star of the evening was oysters Giovanni, which has earned several awards; it has always been my favorite. Lightly fried oysters were surrounded by a roasted ginger pepper sauce, along with kiwi, mango, and blackberry purees tinged with lemon butter. “We pull it through and it looks like stained glass,” said Chef Duke of the patterned sauce that surrounded the plate. The visual appeal of the dish equaled its flavor. The salty oysters mingled with the sweet afterglow of fruit essence and tangy ginger.
The chef’s unique fusion of fresh ingredients with American, French, Italian, and Creole styles and other international flavors results in an unparalleled variety of taste adventures. He has won numerous awards including the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s 2004 Restaurant of the Year, and the prestigious Taster’s Choice Award for Best Chef 2002.
Tuscany asparagus, wrapped delicately in proscuitto, was stuffed with creamy mozzarella and served with a zesty sun-dried pumpkin seed and basil pesto. The ravioli was resplendent with beef, pork, veal, cheese, eggplant, and pine nuts. Bulbous Gulf shrimp were baked in a garlic sweet vermouth sauce flecked with fresh herbs. As the appetizers were being cleared away, a baritone opera singer performed near our table. The beauty of the moment rather took my breath away and made the dining experience all the more glorious.
Among the finest entrées we feasted on included the roasted half duck laced with a sweet Marsala roasted garlic glaze; grilled pork chops with a Creole mustard, orange, and fig demi-glace (new on the menu), and the amazing Colorado lamb chops. “We have a new char-grill,” Chef Duke explained. “We marinated the lamb in a balsamic marinade with honey. It’s got a little crust on it; the lamp chops melt in your mouth.” The memorable sauce enhanced the luscious chops: it was a sweet tomato balsamic sauce with roasted garlic and roasted rosemary combined with a sweet vermouth tomato sauce. The result was genius on a plate.
Although I am not much of a dessert fan, my dinner companions raved about the tiramisu and the bananas Foster bread pudding. The very best way to approach dining at Café Giovanni is to ask the chef to “Feed me.” The “feed me” special ($65) consists of four courses, each paired with a different fine wine. Chef Duke’s stellar cellar has won Wine Spectator awards.
Chef Duke is a culinary artist, a civic leader, and a colorful radio personality. He can often be seen in the dining room mingling with guests or taking a break at the Belli Baci bar. “The Duke” has quite a following in New Orleans. Like a fine wine that improves with age, his Café Giovanni just keeps getting better year after year.