Chef LeRoy Bautista cooks diner fare spiced up with Latin influences at Refuel Café. Photo by Cheryl Gerber Re" must be the most popular prefix in post-Katrina New Orleans. We are in the midst of a recovery, we're told there's a rebirth and renewal on the horizon and any number of businesses pledge that they are "rebuilding New Orleans one (insert product/service here) at a time."
The new Riverbend café called Refuel, however, is not a product of this recovery lexicon. Chef and first-time restaurateur LeRoy Bautista, his wife Aurora and their business partner John Guthrie chose the name for their café the summer before Hurricane Katrina. They expected to open in September 2005 as a coffee shop that also featured Bautista's Latin-tinged take on diner classics.
Instead, Refuel opened in March and although it has an impressive coffee selection, it's doing far more business as a restaurant. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch with items like house-roasted meats, seared fish, omelets and huevos rancheros.
The caf itself is refreshing and, judging by its volume of newly minted regulars, it has struck a chord with many of the nearby university students, young families and frequenters of the tattoo parlor located just behind it. The atmosphere is sleek, cool and modern. The room sports a flat-screen TV on one wall, large paintings on loan from Guthrie's Uptown art gallery on the others and clean lines throughout. The service style is semi self-service. Customers queue up to place their orders, dunk dollars in the tip jar by the register and dig into meals brought to their tables.
Refuel excels at breakfast and brunch, which should be good news to the many vocal critics of the city's lack of options in that category. The huevos rancheros is beyond reproach, made with fresh pico de gallo. The side orders of grits are china-white and exceptionally creamy. Waffles are airy inside, crisp outside and available with that opiate of the modern gourmet masses, Nutella.
Omelets vary widely in quality. One called the Mediterranean included just a handful of Aegean-themed ingredients -- red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes -- sprinkled over a plain omelet so that the only blending of flavors occurred thanks to whatever the fork prongs happened to hit on each thrust. Others are much better conceived and executed, like the Baja omelet with crunchy bacon and soft avocado and dressed with a spicy ranchero sauce. An occasionally recurring special called the Cajun omelet lives up to its name with what could be a Cajun's own larder plowed into it. Chunks of andouille sausage, moist and vividly fresh flakes of crabmeat and saut-softened peppers and onions were all barely contained by the egg.
At lunchtime or for very early dinners, center stage is taken by a selection of meat and fish -- usually salmon, tuna, steaks, center-cut pork chops and various types of sausage. The fish is particularly satisfying and is bathed in a low-key soy glaze -- a touch salty, a touch sweet -- that lets the meat speak for itself. When ordered rare, both the tuna and the salmon come out in the manner of a well-made tataki, with just a ribbon's edge of seared flesh around the blossom of the succulent, soft interior. These fish and meat choices are priced between $9 and $12, and some are served either as a plate or over a salad.
I like the plates more than the salads, which tend to have too much in the way of lettuce spines and too little of anything else. The plates come with a choice of side dishes that are united by the double threat of simplicity and freshness, like a salad of huge tomato slices, red onion and olives. The most basic side dish here, coleslaw, doesn't beat down any doors with its flavor but nonetheless delivers a pleasing crunch. I've ordered it specifically to dress up a few sandwiches that otherwise would have been too dry. The Cuban sandwiches had that problem, though it certainly isn't the case with the Aurora, a sandwich named for the chef's wife. This one has seasoned chunks of roasted turkey, cream cheese and a generous slather of strawberry rhubarb marmalade, made in house.
All the sandwiches start with very good bread, whether it's the po-boy loaves or the airy, crusty ciabatta that elevated a vegetarian sandwich of roasted Portobello mushrooms and red peppers with creamy pats of fresh mozzarella.
Soups are usually very good. One example is the BLT soup, made with a potato base, which was surprisingly smooth and creamy, with no chunks of potato but rather a velvety puree with strands of romaine lettuce floating on top. More than just completing the idiom of the name, the lettuce adds a great texture contrast to the soup.
Desserts are tempting enough to put a rich, sweet exclamation point at the end of what could be an otherwise light and healthy lunch. A prodigious wedge of pumpkin cheesecake was the coup de grace for my appetite one afternoon with its dense, creamy, mouth-warming filling and buttery, crumbly crust. Another favorite is bonbons made of cheesecake dipped in dark chocolate and dusted with crushed nuts.
It's hard to leave Refuel without taking along a cup of coffee, and that's not because the preceding meal was overly sedating. Rather, coffee seems to get the same attention as sauce preparation and salmon searing at the cafe, validating the original Refuel concept. Bautista says he hopes to expand locally soon, an ambition which other neighborhoods in need of a refuel might applaud.
- Cheryl Gerber
- A Riverbend caf serves Latin-tinged diner classics and high-octane coffee