When Glen Hogh, chef and owner of Vega Tapas Cafe (2051 Metairie Road, Metairie,
504-836-2007; www.vegatapascafe.com) looked into the dining room one day and saw David and Wendy Vitter in a tuxedo and sequined gown sitting next to four casually dressed diners, he knew he had struck the right nerve.
"I thought, 'I got it. I did it,'" Hogh says. "These two different groups of people feel just as comfortable sitting next to each other, enjoying their food."
An approachable but pleasant atmosphere was a big part of Hogh's vision when he bought the restaurant in 2003. He had been a chef there since 1998, but had a plan for the tapas cafe that involved a different lounge-like environment, complete with new lighting and a new bar.
"I changed the vibe. That's really kind of everything — the sound, the food, the whole experience," Hogh says. "As restaurant owners, we don't just sell food — we sell an experience."
Food, however, has been put in the "front seat" of that experience, Hogh says. There's a menu of approximately 35 dishes, including 12 core dishes that are always available. The rest are concocted at the whim of inspiration and availability of fresh ingredients.
Hogh rotates through about 100 menu items, which change seasonally. With tapas such as jumbo Gulf shrimp sauteed in paprika garlic oil, plump Gulf oysters baked in manchego and chorizo and a salad of jumbo lump crab with baby arugula, shallots and blood orange vinaigrette, the menu is Mediter- ranean-themed but influenced by Louisiana ingredients.
"I get bored with the same old, same old," Hogh says. "Food is art, so you need to keep a creative mind to it."
While Hogh is quick to clarify he doesn't serve "fusion" food — the genre as a whole "doesn't fly" with him — he says Louisiana ingredients meld well with Spanish tapas.
Mostly, Hogh says, the reason for the synergy is that the ingredients are similar in the different regions. Ham is "huge" in Spain, he adds, as are sausages and other meats like quail.
It's not just Spanish food served at the restaurant, he adds. The restaurant does Mediterranean tapas, but Hogh wants customers to know the difference between his dishes and culinary dishes from other regions.
"It seems like I spent a great deal of my Vega career trying to elevate a lot of people's awareness that Spanish is Spanish and Mexican is Mexican and Peruvian is Peruvian," Hogh says. "It's a totally different culture."
For Hogh, all those elements combined — small plates, Louisiana ingredients, Mediterranean recipes — create the perfect party for consumers' taste buds.
"Why not take Louisiana ingredients and do them in a way so that you can shrink the portion and have variety?" Hogh asks. "That's the most important part — constantly engaging the mind and the mouth for entertainment."