Stanza restaurant is normally known for its fine Italian fare. After all, the complete name of the eatery is Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar. But this week, Stanza was transformed – at least in spirit – into a New Orleans eatery. The occasion was Mardi Gras, and Stanza Executive Chef Jonathan LeBlanc has Southern roots and a deep knowledge of Creole and Cajun cooking.
“I am continually asked when I’m going to let my Cajun-Creole side loose and what better time than during Mardi Gras,” said LeBlanc. “Creating this menu has been a labor of love, as it represents where I’m from, my family and friends, and my roots.” He’s referring to his special Mardi Gras menu that guests, including my wife and I, got to enjoy this week. We dropped into Stanza on Fat Tuesday and the Louisiana-inspired dishes were so delightful that, who knows, maybe they’ll start popping up here and there on the regular Stanza menu. After all, isn’t cioppino just an Italian-style gumbo, of sorts?
Regardless of whether or not Cajun-Creole cuisine ever finds its way onto the Stanza menu, the Mardi Gras dinner was an example of how much fun Stanza’s special wine/beer/booze pairing dinners are.
We met new folks that we didn’t know and enjoyed an array of excellent dishes creatively paired with beer and cocktails. I urge you to sign up to keep abreast of Stanza’s upcoming pairing dinners – they’re a blast. This one kicked off with a little something local: Epic Brewery Double Skull Doppelbock to accompany a first-course shrimp dish.
There are shrimp, and then there are SHRIMP. For his opening salvo of the Stanza Mardi Gras meal, Chef LeBlanc served up what I believe are the largest shrimp commercially available. They’re called U10s, meaning that 10 or fewer make up a pound of these monsters. His New Orleans BBQ Shrimp features tender and juicy head-on served with what may have been the most scrumptious Southern Stone Ground Grits I’ve ever tasted. The beurre blanc sauce with hints of rosemary had most of us licking our plates clean.
What would a Louisiana-style Mardi Gras meal be without gumbo? For his gumbo – as with all of the dishes for the evening – LeBlanc went back to his roots, calling upon friends, family, and trusted purveyors in Louisiana to order specialty items like andouille sausage, crawfish, popcorn rice, crabs, redfish and more.
The Gulf Seafood Gumbo was presented in an innovative way. Rather than just a big bowl of gumbo arriving at the table, there was a plate of fixins – popcorn rice, horseradish new potato salad, and a fiery Rum Barrell Hot Sauce made with habaneros on the side. The idea was to add those items to the seafood gumbo as one wished. I didn’t realize that some folks like potato salad with their gumbo – live and learn. The rich seafood and sausage gumbo – with a deeply flavored toasted dark roux – was outstanding, served with a classic New Orleans cocktail: the Sazerac.
Service at Stanza’s private events such as this one is superb, overseen by General Manager Keith Foust and Manager Michael Grundy. Glasses were kept full throughout the evening and the procession of food courses and pairings arrived in a timely manner. This is a top-notch staff.
No one left Stanza hungry, that’s for sure. The portions were generous, to say the least, and I couldn’t even finish all of my Cajun Surf & Turf. It was a clever meat-and-seafood dish of crab and shrimp with roasted mirliton (Surf) and “Oxtail Debris” (Turf), the latter of which was oxtail cooked over a three day period, then shredded and served atop a focaccia medallion with scrumptious five-pepper brunoise. Apparently, I enjoyed my Hurricane rum cocktail that accompanied the Surf & Turf so much that I forgot to photograph it.
A few of us got up, stretched, and took a breather during a pleasing palate cleanser: Peach-Raspberry Southern Comfort Sorbet.
But Leblanc wasn’t even close to finishing. I’d lost count of how many different entrees we’d enjoyed by the time his Red Fish Pontchartrain came out, along with a tasty Pimm’s No.1 Coupe cocktail. This was truly outstanding: tender, perfectly cooked redfish in a heavenly crawfish etouffee sauce, accompanied by corn maque choux made from scratch and what might be the best dirty rice dressing I’ve ever encountered. Most cooks are content to make dirty rice with ground chicken livers or ground beef or pork. Not LeBlanc. He spent days slow-cooking duck for duck confit to add to his dirty rice. It was exceptional. Note to chef: Please find a way to work your dirty rice dressing onto the regular Stanza menu.
Stanza is blessed with one of our state’s best pastry chefs in the uber-talented Amber Billingsley, who handles the pastry duties for both Stanza and its sister restaurant, Current Fish & Oyster. She’s won numerous “Best Pastry Chef” awards and her Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding is a good indication why. I honestly didn’t think I could eat another morsel after the multi-course Mardi Gras onslaught. But, when I spied that bread pudding, with Frangelico Crème Anglaise, brûlèed marshmallows and pecan praline crumbles, well … maybe just one bite.
Led by Joel LaSalle at the helm, the LaSalle Restaurant Group has a string of hit restaurants including the venerable Oasis Cafe, along with Current Fish & Oyster, Kyoto Japanese Restaurant, Under Current Bar, Cafe Niche, and Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar. Well, as much as I love Jonathen LeBlanc’s Italian cuisine at Stanza, I would be stoked to see LaSalle add another new restaurant to his empire with LeBlanc running the show. You know: something called Cajun-Creole Kitchen or maybe Mardi Gras Meals. Because, this town could surely use a permanent helping of the Louisiana-style flavors that Stanza and LeBlanc cooked up for this year’s Mardi Gras.
Culinary quote of the week:
“You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.” — Paul Prudhomme
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.