At Cafe Sbisa, the first thing diners notice is a mural by the late George Dureau, which looms large over the historic restaurant's dining room. The photographer and painter's depiction of French Quarter patrons at the Decatur Street restaurant (which dates back to 1899) has been hanging in the same spot for decades, though the iconic eatery shuttered after Hurricane Katrina and has had several short-lived incarnations in years past.
Now under the co-ownership of Craig Napoli and Alfred Singleton, who also is the executive chef, the building's history and charm feel revived. Its elegant design has dark wood accents, exposed brick walls and a hand-carved mahogany bar.
Singleton worked at Sbisa before Katrina and returned with Napoli as co-owner last fall. The restaurant bills itself as a French-Creole spot.
Crab cakes are among the restaurant's best bets and are some of the best in the city. They're buttery without being too rich, dense without too much filler and coated in a golden panko breadcrumb crust. A touch of the fork leaves succulent hunks of crab falling apart under citrus aioli and a small bundle of microgreens.
Creole classics dot the menu, including turtle soup, gumbo and courtbouillon. But Singleton also takes slight detours, highlighting dishes that embody classic French techniques with creative variations.
Lightly fried oysters top a bed of creamed spinach laced with Herbsaint. The dish is topped with chopped bacon and grated Parmesan cheese and nestled in a tangy Tabasco hollandaise. Thick-cut lamb chops are cooked medium-rare, crusted with herbs and served with sweet and creamy roasted corn pudding. On one visit, the lamb needed more seasoning, but a flavorful jus pooled on the plate. Accompanying cherry tomatoes and parsley seemed an unnecessary and antiquated garnish.
The classic wedge salad would suit any steakhouse and arrives draped with creamy blue cheese dressing with knobs of salty, funky blue cheese. Soft and vinegary caramelized onion strips are draped over the mound of iceberg lettuce, and cherry tomatoes bring a welcome burst of juice and acid to the dish.
A classic French rendition of duck confit has an extra-crispy coating that gives way to succulent dark meat. It is topped with bearnaise and flanked by a generous mound of truffle- and Parmesan-covered fries. The duck's salty richness is balanced by the fresh and bitter crunch of accompanying frisee and red onion salad.
The restaurant's bar highlights the space's romantic charms, and it sits beneath Dureau's mural, a timeless depiction of French Quarter life that features Dureau himself, a longtime regular. The scene suits a restaurant entering a new era of dining while also preserving something of old New Orleans.