New Orleans’ dining scene has continued to up the stakes and is becoming crazy competitive. More than 50 restaurants opened in the second half of 2016, and several more are slated to open in the final weeks of the year. While it would be easy to do a top 10 or even a top 20 list of the best new restaurants in 2016, we want to highlight three openings that are providing a truly unique culinary point of view.

Courtesy of Turkey and the Wolf

Turkey and the Wolf

Irish Channel

Turkey and the Wolf opened in August and gained instant popularity for its sandwich-shop-meets-mad-munchies vibe and excellent cocktails. Owners Mason Hereford and Lauren Holton have created a fresh, fun, irreverent environment -- think mismatched plates, vintage salt shakers, and framed napkin art -- and backed it up with serious chops in the kitchen and behind the bar.

With dishes that include a fried baloney sandwich and a tostada with French onion dip and refried beans topped with cheese and Dorito crumbles, Hereford makes crazy stoner food that customers crave -- especially chefs. During the week, there’s almost always at least one other chef enjoying the wedge salad or chicken fried steak sandwich, and whatever else Hereford sends out to mess with them.

Even cautious eaters can find something to enjoy, like the simple house-cured and smoked ham sandwich with aged cheddar and cranberries. Or the deviled eggs, which are pretty straightforward with added hot sauce and fried chicken skins as garnish.

Dessert options are deceptively simple. The kitchen makes vanilla soft-serve ice cream, which serves as the base of all dessert menu items, but the toppings are what push these bowls of soft serve goodness over the top. They change up frequently, but toppings like apple pie chunks and cheddar curds or graham crackers with Key lime pie chunks are playful and inspire deliciously intriguing flavor and texture profiles. The real revelation is the soft serve with ribbons of tahini and date molasses syrup, creating a flavor combination vaguely reminiscent of PB&J, but so much more than that.

We are already on record of being big fans of Lauren Holton’s delightfully creative cocktails made behind Turkey and the Wolf’s tiny bar. According the Holton, every cocktail is named for a story personally experienced by her or one of her badass lady bartenders, like “The Best Part of Waking Up, At Noon” or “Fred’s in the Well.” Everything about these cocktails is designed to connect with Turkey and the Wolf’s customers.

Meril

Meril

Warehouse District

In September, Emeril Lagasse opened his first restaurant in New Orleans in 18 years, named for his daughter Meril. The bright, open, modern/industrial space showcases an open kitchen and striking artwork of what we eat from the water, earth, and air (although a picture of a giant crab is mighty menacing). It’s more casual than his other restaurants, with a small-plates vibe with diverse international flavors.

Chef de Cuisine Will Avelar is a longtime member of Emeril’s organization, having been with the group since 2005. He’s created a menu of bold flavors that utilize global ingredients and dishes, like Mexican-style corn on the cob, Korean short ribs, or yellowfin tuna wraps. Southern and Louisiana styles are represented too, with must-try turkey necks, roasted Gulf oysters, and Louisiana Cajun caviar. Avelar also blends traditions in dishes like the buttermilk biscuit with foie gras butter and blackberry preserves, boudin-stuffed tamale, and candied pork ribs.

Customers are encouraged to share the plates, and nothing costs more than 20 bucks. Desserts of lemon ice box pie, dulce de leche bread pudding, and a wide variety of house-made ice creams and sorbets are all satisfying ways to end a meal, but if there’s a birthday at your table, artisanal cotton candy with sparklers are presented while the staff and patrons sing "Happy Birthday."

The fun, playful vibe extends to Miki Nikolic’s cocktail list, where all drinks are numbered and organized by spirit. That may sound more clinical than playful, but a quick look at the ingredients shows clever riffs on classics as well as some that appear bonkers (but in a good way). Try the No. 62, a refreshing Pimm’s Cup variation that's perfect for lunchtime cocktailing with Pimm’s No. 1, lemongrass, maple syrup, cucumber water, lemon juice, and ginger beer. Expand your cocktail taste repertoire with the No. 41, with tequila, rose petal syrup, vanilla syrup, and Lindemans Framboise lambic beer. Or the No. 50, which combines white whiskey, grapefruit shrub, tarragon syrup, yuzu citrus, and prosecco.

Denny Culbert

Toups South

Faubourg Lafayette

October brought former Top Chef contestant and badass local chef Isaac Toups to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum to open his second restaurant, Toups South. Bringing some Cajun carnivorous favorites from his other restaurant, Mid City’s Toups' Meatery, like cracklins and boudin, the rest of the menu focuses on other regional Southern dishes and flavor profiles. Combining Toups’ celebration of all things meat with SoFAB’s historical resources -- like Aaron Franklin’s original smoker, used to smoke all manner of ingredients like foie gras and lamb legs -- has resulted in a vibrant and living exhibit of the bold flavors and country ingredients that Southern regional cuisine is known for.

The bar itself is salvaged from long-gone but much beloved Bruning’s Restaurant that used to sit on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain in an area known as the West End. Bruning’s was an old-school New Orleans restaurant that opened in 1859 and was lost to Katrina. The gorgeous wooden bar was salvageable, though, and became the property of the museum due to Bruning’s historic significance.
It’s been put to good use though with cocktails and creative mocktails. Southern-focused ingredients and classic cocktails get an update with drinks like the Toups Julep, with whiskey, sweet tea syrup, persimmon, and mint in the traditional julep cup with loads of cooling crushed ice, while the Porkchops and Applesauce is sort of like an Old Fashioned, but with pork-washed whiskey, apple syrup, and bitters. OK, maybe nothing like an Old Fashioned.

Toups and his Chef de Cuisine David Barbeau serve up amazing culinary interpretations of classic Southern food, which are updated without being deconstructed. The tamales are filled with smoked goat and are topped with house-made Tex-Mex style condiments. The black eyed peas and local greens salad presents the peas atop the vegetation deep fried, crunchy, and addicting.

For lunch, try any of the po-boys on the menu, which are all beautifully designed and tasty as hell: The daube glace poboy is based on a New Orleans/Creole braised beef dish; the andouille po-boy has house-made and smoked sausage, dressed with lettuce, tomato, and garlic mayo; and the cornmeal fried gulf oyster po-boy is served with arugula and tomato jam.

For dinner, it’s hard to go wrong with the spatchcock grilled poussin (chicken) with pecan dumplings or the fried pork chop stack, which is exactly what it sounds like and it serves at least two people. For any meal -- and Toups South is also open for brunch on Sunday -- the hot buttermilk biscuits with crab fat butter will have you calling for your mama, they’re so good.

These three restaurants represent New Orleans, in a culinary context as well as a wider one. Turkey and the Wolf shows the goofy fun side of the city, never taking anything too seriously; Meril comes from the mind of a man who is most associated with New Orleans cooking and serves up an array of multicultural flavors, some standing on their own and some combining with local ingredients to show the culinary melting pot here; and Toups South brings the larger regional ideas into the mix, acknowledging that New Orleans is indeed part of the South, while showcasing its own unique traditions.

The food scene is moving in a million directions here; but no matter what food any local restaurant serves, it will always, in its own way, be part of the culture of New Orleans. Turkey and the Wolf, Meril, and Toups South have, in particular, shown us that in 2016.

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Nora McGunnigle is thrilled to live in a world that involves eating at these three restaurants as often as her heart desires. Follow along on Twitter: @noradeirdre or Instagram: @nolabeerblog.

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1. Turkey & the Wolf 739 Jackson Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130

With a menu divided into “Sandwiches” and “Not Sandwiches,” Irish Channel’s The Turkey and The Wolf establishes the senses of quirkiness and irony that is apparent both in the food and the atmosphere. Menu items tend to include everything but the kitchen sink, like the fried bologna sandwich, which stacks meat, hot English mustard, potato chips, “shrettuce,” mayo, and American cheese, or the wedge salad, which is topped with “everything bagel crunchy stuff.” Tables are set with mismatched plates and vintage saltshakers, and there’s a collection of framed napkin art in the bathroom.

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2. Meril 424 Girod St, New Orleans, LA 70130 (Warehouse District)

Named after Emeril Lagasse’s daughter, Meril is the illustrious chef’s most casual eatery in New Orleans. Its menu showcases some of Emeril’s personal favorite dishes to eat and is largely inspired by his world travels, featuring snacks like Vietnamese spring rolls and Spanish-style croquettes. A wood-fired oven churns out flatbreads, like an upside-down cornbread, with pineapple and house bacon marmalade, while a Japanese robata-style grill heats meats, including candied five-spice pork ribs. All pastas feature noodles from Dan Esses’ local company, including fennel rigatoni tossed with gulf shrimp, broccoli, spicy Italian sausage, and pecorino. Take a seat around the horseshoe-shaped bar, where you can peer into the open kitchen and watch the creative culinary process unfold.

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3. Toups South 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd, New Orleans, LA 70113

Considering this industrial-chic restaurant from Isaac Toups is located in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, you know the home-style and barbecue dishes are going to be authentic. Toups even uses BBQ king Aaron Franklin’s original smoker (which was donated to the museum) to cook refined plates of smoked leg of lamb, foie gras terrine, and brown sugar-glazed pork belly. You'll also find regional dishes like black-eyed peas, sourdough biscuits with crab fat butter, and heritage pork boudin on the menu.

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4. Toups' Meatery 845 N. Carrollton, New Orleans, LA 70119 (Mid City)

Helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Isaac Toups, this Mid-City spot serves a carnivore-centric menu with bold Cajun flavor. Large entrees like the grilled Georgia quail with farm-fresh seasonal vegetables and saba satiate and surprise; light bites range from addictive cracklins and deviled eggs with smoked trout roe. Minimalist metal chairs and refurbished wood surfaces give Toups a cabin-like feel that enhances the relaxed, convivial vibe.

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