America's Finest Dining: The South
Arnaud’s, New Orleans
Arnaud Cazanave opened his doors in 1918 intent on offering New Orleanians a spot where they could, in his words, “throw all care to the winds, relax completely, and dine leisurely and well.” His philosophy continues to pervade the restaurant, which is the birthplace of Oysters Bienville (a dish that includes shrimp, green onions, mushrooms, and white wine). Today, Arnaud’s specializes in such Creole classics as speckled trout meunière, petite filet LaFitte (oyster-stuffed filet mignon), and turtle soup. - David Lyon
Jeffrey’s, Austin, Texas
After graduating from Austin’s University of Texas in 1969, Peggy and Ron Weiss moved to London, where dining at neighborhood bistros figured prominently in their newfound lifestyle. Upon returning to Austin in 1975, the pair partnered with four college friends and opened a bistro of their own, which today commands a loyal following. Located in a 1930s neighborhood in west Austin, Jeffrey’s—named after one of the partners—offers a gourmet menu in a small but elegant setting. Executive chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas, a native of Mexico City who trained in Paris, rotates menus daily and cooks what she calls contemporary Texas cuisine. It combines Southwest influences with touches of Italy, France, and Spain. The crispy oysters served with yucca-root chips and honey-habanero aioli, and the salad are among the restaurant’s starters. The wine menu offers more than 200 selections of Old and New World vintages, including some from the wine-producing region in Texas Hill Country. - Jessica Taylor
Take a Load off
Cafe Annie, Houston
Table-hopping plays prominently in the appeal of Cafe Annie. Amid semiformal surroundings—consisting of vaulted ceilings, polished woods, and extravagant floral arrangements—bottles of wine often pass from one table to the next, as regulars update their social calendars.
However affable the restaurant’s atmosphere, the menu’s regional offerings are Cafe Annie’s main draw. Creative combinations of spices and chilies are featured in dishes such as the cinnamon-roasted pheasant served with applewood-smoked bacon and red chili pecan sauce. Opened 26 years ago in the city’s verdant Post Oak area, Cafe Annie has deep roots in such innovative cooking: Owner-chef Robert Del Grande is considered one of the forefathers of what has become known as Southwestern cuisine. - Jessica Taylor
Chef Michelle Bernstein was a tough act to follow when she left the Mandarin Oriental Miami’s signature restaurant, Azul (Spanish for “blue”), in 2004. During her four-year reign, the Florida native—known for her unique fusions that included French, Caribbean, and Argentinean influences—established Azul as having the city’s most cutting-edge menu, with such items as chestnut soup with prosciutto and foie gras, and Caribbean bouillabaisse.
Clay Conley, who previously served as the executive chef at Todd English’s Olives restaurant at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, now runs Azul’s kitchen. Conley’s menu represents a less daring—but by no means less rewarding—combination of Mediterranean and Asian cuisines, and showcases plates such as miso-marinated halibut, edamame stir-fry, and Moroccan lamb. Bernstein may have taken her bolder combinations with her, but Azul’s food and service remain top-notch, as does the restaurant’s setting on Brickell Key, which affords nearly all of the 120 seats a view of the ocean. - Samantha Brooks
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, Atlanta
The dining room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. Stately artworks and antiques counterbalance the edgy menu.
Citrus-cured Maine cod with littleneck clams, fennel froth, and chorizo dust might seem out of place in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, but like his predecessors, the Dining Room’s chef, Arnaud Berthelier, is not afraid to push boundaries. Rising to the challenges presented by the cuisine is 25-year-old sommelier Chantelle Grilhot, the first woman and the youngest person ever to oversee the restaurant’s wine cellar, which contains more than 3,000 selections. - Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Maestro, Tysons Corner, Virginia
Fabio Trabocchi is only 32 years old, but he works with the aplomb—some might say cockiness—of a master. Trabocchi named his restaurant “Maestro” and dubbed two of his menus “The Creation” and “The Evolution,” although such labels do not seem like hyperbole after you have tasted his food.
Working in an open and uncommonly serene kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Trabocchi plays imaginative riffs on Italian tradition, one minute preparing plates of pasta so light that they disappear almost on contact, and the next challenging diners by having them chase a spoonful of fish tartare with a test tube full of basil-flavored lobster stock. You can drink as well as you eat thanks to sommelier Vincent Feraud, who is charming and enthusiastic whether you order a single, inexpensive glass of wine or a $3,000 bottle of Bordeaux. - Todd Kliman
A Step Up
L’Escalier, Palm Beach, Florida
When the flagship restaurant of the Breakers resort in Palm Beach touts its “elevated French cuisine,” it could be perpetrating a pun. After all, L’Escalier means “stairs” in French, and to enter the establishment, you have to ascend a brief flight. However, menu items such as salade lyonnaise with foie gras hollandaise suggest that the restaurant is serious—and accurate—in its claim. - Sheila Gibson Stoodley
The Great Gadsby
NOÉ. Robert Gadsby’s tasteful Houston establishment. Photograph by Dan Ham.
The tasting menu, whether it comprises four, six, nine, or 12 courses, is Robert Gadsby’s forte; it gives him ample opportunity to unite French, Japanese, and Italian flavors with local ingredients to create his version of American cuisine. His second Noé restaurant, at the Omni Hotel in Houston (the original is in Los Angeles), offers an à la carte menu. But if you want the full experience, ask the kitchen to surprise you in six courses. - Anthony Head
All That Jazz
Restaurant August, New Orleans
John Besh is to Creole cuisine what Wynton Marsalis is to New Orleans jazz: learned and respectful of its heritage, but capable of creating works that are far, far evolved from it. The gilded walls, crystal chandeliers, and burgundy velvet banquettes of Restaurant August’s main dining room set the tone for Besh’s lush cooking. The chef celebrates his bayou roots by presenting Louisiana redfish with cauliflower, crabmeat, and caviar, and serving local rabbit over an artichoke stew with a portlike reduction of southern muscadine grapes. - David Lyon
Low Country, High Art
Charleston Grill, Charleston, South Carolina
Only a chef whose culinary skills are as boundless as his confidence could convince Americans that pig’s feet are a treat. Judging by the number of plates of beer-braised collards with Cabernet-sauced pig’s feet that parade from the Charleston Grill kitchen, Bob Waggoner has made many converts. Waggoner applies French finesse to the Low Country cuisine of the South Carolina/Georgia coast, elevating even Frogmore Stew—a seafood boil that is analogous to a New England clambake—to a refined blend of local shrimp, homemade andouille sausage, crab, and corn kernels in a wine-laced shellfish broth. - Patricia Harris
Something to Rêve About
Le Rêve, San Antonio, Texas
Chef Andrew Weissman’s menu usually includes a caramelized onion tart with goat cheese. It might also feature sautéed duck breast plated with Bosc pears, New Zealand lamb chops, or wild salmon; Weissman will showcase whichever ingredients are freshest. Because nothing is ever prepared in advance, a meal at Le Rêve typically lasts at least two hours. - Anthony Head