chef Michael Gulotta honed his skills During his six-year tenure at chef John Besh's flagship, August. At MoPho, his Mid-City homage to popular Vietnamese dishes, he wowed diners with creative spins on Southeast Asian dishes fused with Southern soul.
For the menu at his Italian concept Tana, inside the Tulane Avenue cocktail bar Treo, Gulotta taps into his Sicilian background in beautiful and surprising ways.
Italian food is common in New Orleans, but the dishes at Tana feel unrestrained and daring, breathing new life into the cuisine. Gulotta's experience exploring the nuances between Southeast Asian flavors and New Orleans' own culinary lexicon may have helped, because at Tana, tradition also is tweaked to feature ingredients that surprise and dazzle, highlighting a short menu of fresh pastas, seafood and vegetables.
Garum, a Roman-style fish sauce similar to Vietnamese nuoc mam, is used to dress charred broccoli nestling cured kumquats and almonds. Ribbons of mint and red chilies add the slightest touch of heat and freshness. It's a bright, lively dish in which flavors of smoke, spice and citrus vie for the spotlight.
Though the kitchen shows off modern techniques, house-made pastas are rustic in design. When a towering pile of unevenly shaped cornmeal garganelli arrives, the scent of freshly milled corn wafts off the dish, giving it an earthy, bucolic feel. Crab butter and Florida bottarga add briny and creamy qualities, while beef jus imparts a deeper, heartier dimension.
Spice finds its way into a number of dishes, delivering more heat than one might expect from Italian food. Diners wouldn't know it by looking at the menu, but the kitchen tucks Calabrian chilies into fusilli pasta tossed with sweet acorn squash, caramelized fennel and bacon. That light touch of heat balances a dish that otherwise might come off as heavy or cloying.
Those chilies also appear in a standout dish of thick roasted garlic spaghetti snaked around fat Florida clams and hot sausage. Topped with a generous shower of buttery and spicy pangrattato (Italian-style breadcrumbs), the dish has deep flavors and somehow is warming and hearty yet briny and fresh all at once.
The menu isn't exclusively devoted to seafood, but it gets prominent placement, a nod to the coastal-inspired dishes of Liguria, the crescent-shaped slice of Italy hugging the Mediterranean, where Gulotta spent time working after school.
Fried oysters are served with a fresh tomato medley and dollops of creamy Parmesan mousse. The citrus-forward dish is decorated with cured kumquat rind and thick bacon lardons and is an addictive appetizer that tastes as good as it looks.
Grilled branzino has firm yet flaky skin beneath a crispy flavorful exterior dotted with carrot-top chermoula rich with cumin, herbs and garlic. It's a beautiful dish, completed with roasted potatoes and baby carrots, painted with strokes of harissa oil and decorated with fresh herbs and spicy cashew bits — an explosion of texture, color and taste.
The menu is short, and the vegetarian selection is scant. A warm Thomasville Tomme fonduta served with rustic hunks of dark bread — though delicious — isn't substantial enough to be an entree.
The most surprising thing about Tana is that, despite his recent accolades (including being named one of Food & Wine magazine's best new chefs), Gulotta's latest project still feels like somewhat of a secret. That shouldn't be the case for much longer.