From Johnny V's to Luther Kent

00:00 November 20, 2012
By: Emily Hingle
[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]
Under a starry night sky in a brick courtyard surrounded by iron lace balconies, I sat with Johnny Vodanovich, owner and namesake of Johnny V's Grill by the Hill, however, we weren't outside. We were in Johnny's restaurant which sits next to the Monkey Hill Bar at 6101 Magazine St. The restaurant has been open for nearly a year, but is changing from formal to casual. The menu is now under the supervision of chef Armand Jonte, formerly of Gautreau's, and is filled with traditional New Orleans favorites that are getting spectacular reviews. The flavorful Eggplant Eloise [fried eggplant stuffed with shrimp, crab meat, and crawfish and topped with Chiron sauce] was incredibly tender and sweet and the Shrimp Bisque was thick and rich. As of late, Johnny V's began serving small plate dishes to Monkey Hill Bar consisting of gourmet bar foods that were instant hits. More recent changes include a kids menu and vegan dishes. "The whole goal is to make it family-friendly and to have people come in in their jeans." Johnny's work associate of more than a decade at Lee Circle Restaurant and Maitre d' Nash Laurent chimes in, "We realized that we should go down just a notch. I quit wearing the tie a couple of months ago."

Johnny grew up in the restaurant business. He explains, "My family had Bozo's Restaurant that was on St. Ann Street, and a couple of restaurants and bars on Tulane Avenue back in the '40s and '50s. It was always in my blood, and I'm just continuing a tradition." He began working in the restaurant business downtown which surrounded him with lively music. During that time, he discovered one artist that would become one of his favorite musicians, Monkey Hill regular and a good friend bluesman Luther Kent. "I go back 30 years with Luther. He's talented. You wouldn't know talking to him, but he stayed at John Lennon's house for 38 days recording at Abbey Road Studios, he sang with Ray Charles, but just to talk to him, he's modest." He remembers meeting Luther, "The first time I saw him, I was walking down Bourbon Street; I used to manage a restaurant down there at a young age. And he was playing at the Old Absinthe Bar. I think it's a daiquiri shop now. But I walked to this little side door that had jail bars and I heard the music and asked, 'Where is that music coming from?' I walked around and stood by the door that was right by the stage and was listening and watching and said, 'That's incredible.' I used to go there a lot. Then he moved to the Blues Saloon which was on the corner of Conti and Burgundy. It didn't last long, but it was the greatest blues bar the city ever had."

The Blues Saloon was a raucous club that always had music pouring out of it. Johnny and Luther list the unbelievable names of artists who performed there, often spontaneously; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, Boz Scaggs, Etta James, Joe Cocker, and local favorites James Booker and Dr. John. Luther Kent fondly remembers performing there, "It was actually one of my favorite places to play in New Orleans. My first show was at two-thirty in the morning. I was playing there with the Big Band. And every weekend, it was like a who's who of whoever was in New Orleans doing concerts that would come and sit in from Billy Eckstine to Etta James and anyone you can imagine in between." Johnny exclaims, "I don't think there will ever be a place like that again."

Luther Kent is also a native New Orleanian; growing up in a musical family in the heart of uptown on Magazine and Napoleon. Traditional dishes are his favorite. "There's so many different influences in New Orleans, and there's so many ethnic backgrounds that go into the food. I think that's why the food here is so unique. I've traveled all over the world and there's no place like New Orleans for food and music. There's so many great places in New Orleans and everybody has their own little spin on how they do things." Luther raved about the food at Johnny's restaurant saying, "I'm very critical of food and music, but I was absolutely blown away by the food." When asked of additional favorites, he mentioned other legendary establishments, Pascal's Manale, Liuzza's, Tujague's, and The Bombay Club in the French Quarter.

Johnny V's begins to fill with hungry customers as Monkey Hill Bar fills with thirsty ones. Luther will be performing at the bar again to a packed house.

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