By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – There was a three word answer from Lou Tortorich when asked what will make Sapphire one of Slidell’s next great restaurants.
“Mom and dad,” he said with a smile, followed by a laugh.
His partner, Erin English, sat nearby and nodded in agreement.
Sapphire is now open at the 2306 Front St. location formerly occupied by Bistro de la Reine, after it was almost named “Mandich North Shore” in honor of the 80-year New Orleans restaurant by the same name—minus the North Shore.
English is a third generation restaurant veteran who grew up working at the Mandich restaurant in New Orleans, where his grandparents operated the famous spot, followed by his mother and father, Lloyd and Joel English. And it just so happens Lloyd and Joel are working in the kitchen at Sapphire, bringing the popular Mandich recipes to Slidell.
“What makes this restaurant different?” Tortorich responded. “A great restaurant has to start with the food and we have the Mandich recipes, being cooked and taught to our staff by Lloyd and Joel. That’s the most important thing.”
Tortorich is a longtime New Orleans businessman who has a bit of experience himself, operating another well-known spot in the heart of the city where he and his brother started Ernst Café on St. Peters Street back in the 80s. The café is still open today, although operated by a new owner.
Tortorich got to know Erin English since he frequented Mandich for nearly 30 years, but after Hurricane Katrina shut down the New Orleans establishment, English was out of work and on the lookout for a new place.
“My parents were looking at retiring about 2003, so I was beginning to take over management of Mandich,” English said. “But then the entire place was closed after Katrina.”
From 2005, English worked a host of different jobs, some in the restaurant business and some not. But the last three to four years, he began to seriously look for a new restaurant to open, finally seeing the vacant Bistro building on Craig’s List. Meanwhile, Tortorich was in the same mode of looking for a place to open, and as a longtime Slidell resident, knew the Bistro had closed.
“I looked at the place on my own, and it turned out Erin had looked at it a few weeks earlier,” Tortorich said. “It’s got a great location, great atmosphere inside and seemed like a great place to bring another top restaurant to Slidell.”
Tortorich grew up in New Orleans and fell in love with the business world from a young age.
“I didn’t know I would love business so much, but I was initiated into it by the need to make money,” he said. “Then I realized I had a passion for it.”
Tortorich worked as a bouncer at a Bourbon Street bar, operated an ice cream parlor and then became an owner of Bogart’s, a Fat City nightclub, when he was only 22 and his mother helped him finance the club.
“I lasted about 11 months and had my first important lesson about business,” he said. “I started learning lessons then, and I’m still learning lessons. But the most important lesson is one I heard Winston Churchill say. Never, never, never quit!”
He purchased the location for the Ernst Café from his grandfather, hoping the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans would boost he and his brother to riches, something that never happened although he did use his earlier lessons to make Ernst a success that lasted for decades.
Now with Sapphire, English and Tortorich have combined their years of experience to create a team they believe will give Slidell something unique and different.
“We have items on the menu that no one has, and we’ve got so many dishes from Mandich that we haven’t even gotten to yet,” English said. “Also, we’ve created some new things like the stuffed lobster tail.”
English said their steaks are second to none because they serve 100 percent USDA prime meat for all the steaks they offer.
“We’ve learned that when someone comes in our restaurant the first time, we’ve got to ‘wow’ them right away,” English said. “And the key is to be consistent with the dishes you serve, so when they do come back and want the same thing, we will make it just as good every time.”
He said the twosome can ensure that consistency since Tortorich and English are both at the restaurant “all the time. We have to be here to make sure our service and food is always the best it can be.”
Tortorich said Sapphire will bring a New Orleans quality of service from the best restaurants to Slidell, going as far to have prepared dishes “on your table within seconds of being ready.” He said the restaurant does not use trays to bring food to tables “because that slows things down. As soon as a dish is ready, we have servers bring the plates to the table without delay. Nothing ruins a meal faster than to have it cool down before you are served.”
One other way the new restaurant has tried to ensure the best quality and food was to open seven weeks ago without fanfare, allowing them time to get any kinks out of the operation.
“We didn’t want a lot of people coming in right away,” Tortorich added. “We wanted about 20 to 30 a night to start, but it’s been amazing how fast the word has passed around and how fast we’ve grown.”
The restaurant is currently only open for dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, from 4:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations are recommended by calling 985-288-4166.