Last week, when I’d had enough of faucets gurgling against the freeze and the depressing sight of plants shriveled by it, I decided to have dinner by the fire.

It was not a traditional hearth I found, but it turned out to be as warming as one. It also gave a sense of satisfaction that went beyond cozy creature comforts, and even beyond the pleasure of the food.

I landed at the open kitchen at Carrollton Market, where the marble-topped dining bar gives a view of the cooking so unguarded you can feel the heat of the stovetop burners flaring against the saucepans.

It’s been nearly four years since chef Jason Goodenough opened Carrollton Market in a small, tapering Riverbend shotgun, taking over the longtime home of One Restaurant. From the start, Goodenough cast this restaurant as his own, with an emphasis on modern Southern flavors.

I covered the restaurant as a new addition when it opened and reviewed it early on. I’ve also kept coming back, and what’s been most impressive is watching how Carrollton Market has evolved and even persevered, building its niche along the way. What follows isn’t a review, but an appreciation of what has grown here.

Last week’s visit showed this kitchen’s reliably creative eye and precise hand. The crucial third factor is the way the cooking here gratifies, which creativity and precision alone will not necessarily ensure in upscale dining.

We had roasted pumpkin soup, an intuitive antidote to the weather that had a texture so velvety it seemed to be absorbed in the mouth. Watching a sous chef sear a crusted cap onto another table’s crabcake ensured we would order one too, and with a binder of only scallop mousse between the crab (not breadcrumb) it flaked apart with intense flavor.

The lobster ravioli brought a whole claw over the top, a flurry of black truffle discs straight from the planer and a stock-rich sauce Américane that gave a potentially delicate dish a hearty seasonal heft (Goodenough told me he’s changing this dish from lobster to crawfish soon).

We split the roasted speckled trout, crisp-skinned and flavorful. Our waiter suggested a no-hassle adjustment to replace the meaty hoppin’ John side dish with seared Brussels sprouts for my pescatarian dining companion.

This visit being on a post-holiday Wednesday, we resisted dessert, though we admired the care a young cook applied as we watched her assemble the chocolate pot du cream with its mini beignets.

In fact, we could see the whole kitchen operation. We watched the way it flowed from and back into the dining room, all framed just beyond our bread plates and wine stems. It was all there — the determined pace, the interaction of cooks, managers and waiters, the coordination, the corrections to inevitable mistakes and the attitude and bearing.

Restaurant culture has been up for discussion in the wake of recent scandals at home and across the land, bringing questions of what goes unseen and unsaid. Here’s a place where a particular restaurant’s culture is on open display, so much so it makes you feel almost a part of it.

That also has to do with the scale and personal direction of Carrollton Market, which has always been part of why it’s compelling to me.

Carrollton Market belongs to that set of upscale neighborhood bistros that secure New Orleans’ reputation as a great restaurant city, occupying the space between the high-profile dining destinations, the storied old dining classics and the down-home joints. Places like Clancy’s, Brigtsen’s and Upperline set the style a generation ago. Patois, Coquette and Bistro Daisy are examples of newer, post-Katrina renditions.

Carrollton Market continues the tale, and it’s the sort of modern expression of the small neighborhood bistro we need to refresh the ranks of this vital restaurant category. It’s great, not grand. It’s not just chef-led, but chef-managed. It’s original but also comprehensible and, hopefully, lasting.

Goodenough didn’t come through a big local restaurant group. He hasn’t made the food TV rounds. This was an upstart, independent effort that seemed to come out of nowhere. The chef and his wife, Amelia, are the only owners. That makes it independent, but that also means it’s flying without a net.

I’ve visited Carrollton Market when the operation was thinner, and the menu was leaner, clearly more limited in what it was able to offer. Making it has meant dreaming up, and pulling off, special menus and different promotions to get new attention in a crowded and churning restaurant market. It’s meant expanding to brunch and, more recently, a late-week lunch (Thursday and Friday) to add more pieces to the puzzle.

But Carrollton Market has kept going, building the only kind of following that can really sustain an upscale restaurant like this, so far from the downtown hotels: a local one.

 Though we had the dining counter to ourselves last week, the restaurant was nearly full, and on a Wednesday night just a few days after holiday crowds departed and New Year’s resolutions were supposed to kick in.

We left dinner and returned to a cold night with good cheer, happy bellies and a sense of warmth. It came from more than just the kitchen burners open to full throttle. It was a dining experience at a modern New Orleans restaurant hitting its stride.


by Ian McNulty

The New Orleans Advocate