I had a chance to get a sneak peek at Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen and to sample some of the food (actually, I sampled all of the food), and I think fans of New Orleans fare are going to be pretty impressed with the place.
Tibby’s is the latest project from the team that created the outrageously successful Tijuana Flats chain of Tex-Mex eateries: Brian Wheeler, Camp Fitch and Wheeler’s father, Chester. But don’t expect to find a Cajunified version of Tijuana Flats. This is a full-blown, full-service restaurant with an extensive menu of appetizers, entrees and desserts, and from what I tasted, all quite authentic. If what I experienced is any indication, Tibby’s will make those of you who are still lamenting the demise of Jockamo’s say, “Jockamo’s? Who dat?”
The Wheeler’s didn’t just choose a New Orleans theme for their new restaurant concept willy-nilly, it’s their hometown. They’ve named the restaurant after Brian’s great-uncle, who fled to Central Florida following Hurricane Katrina with his wife; both spent their last years in Central Florida.
Many of the recipes on Tibby’s menu are from Chester Wheeler’s files. I was impressed with most of what I tasted. Especially the “core” dishes, such as shrimp Creole, etouffe, jambalya and red beans and rice. The muffaletta was
loaded with all the requisite meats and cheeses and seasoned with the special green olive salad. And, just as important as the ingredients, served on good bread, a big, round loaf.
The bread is important with the po’boys, too, and I sampled several versions: oyster, roast beef, chicken, eggplant, shrimp. All “fully dressed” with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayonnaise (on both slices of bread, thank you).
Not everything is painstakingly authentic. The shrimp and oyster remoulades, for example, are served in large schooners rather than on a simple plate. Just a matter of presentation, says Brian Wheeler. And instead of calling the dessert most New Orleanians call beignets, Wheeler has named his Louisiana State Donuts. And they’re pretty damn good. I’d say they’re better than Cafe du Monde’s, but given that Cafe du Monde stopped trying years ago that wouldn’t be much of a c
ompliment. The requisite bread pudding, too, is killer, served with a brandy sauce rather than the more usual rum. Gives it a slightly sharper edge.
Speaking of Cafe du Monde, there’s another bit of “authenticity” Wheeler won’t try to emulate: the questionable cleanliness that pervades many New Orleans eateries. He intends to keep the place as spotless as it is now, still several weeks from opening.
The staffers that will train the new workers were themselves undergoing training when I stopped by. They’re a young crew (krewe?) but eager, and they have that sense of excitement that servers have when they feel confident about the product they’re offering. (That’s such a simple ingredient in the success of a restaurant; why don’t more restaurateurs get it?) They still have some learning to do, including the proper pronunciation of names of dishes and the locales some are named after. That’s OK, Tchoupitoulas isn’t an easy name for even some New Orleanians.
The restaurant is decorated with pictures and artifacts from New Orleans. There’s a big sign from Central Grocery Co
. and a couple of large pieces from actual Mardi Gras floats, plus brightly painted folk art depicting jazz and other Louisiana-ana. I like that it isn’t over kitsched with too many beads and masks. There’s also a large door hanging on the wall that a Wheeler had an artist decorate. But the spray paint over the door’s window was left intact. It indicates what a search team found when they entered the house after the waters that resulted from Katrina receded.
The Tibby’s team doesn’t plan to open for several more weeks, after more training of the trainers and then training of the servers and cooking staff. (The restaurant will employ approximately 95 at opening, says Wheeler.) I’ll let you know when the date is firm.
Tibby’s is at 2203 Aloma Ave., Winter Park. Here’s a link to Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen’s Web site. Warning: like Tijuana Flats’ site, this one starts playing music. Tibby’s will be open for lunch and dinner daily.