Eating the Big Easy
Call it ignorance. Call it bad information. Call it fake news. Alright, don’t call it that last one, but whatever we do decide on calling the New Orleans culinary scene, know this: it is full of unexpected delights. There was never any question that the food was going to be high quality, as The Big Easy is known for its assortment of delectable choices, but what was surprising, upon my first visit a few weeks ago, were the types of food I was able to relish.
More than any other American city, the Crescent City culinary scene is marketed based on its traditions. What you hear about is restaurant after restaurant, each a century old, doing the same favorite dishes they were doing during the time of Louis Armstrong or Huey P. Long. Heck, on an episode about crawfish boils on David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious, which premiered in 2018, the famous chef hammered home the point that the cuisine - at least the crawfish - are prepared the same way they have been since the beginning of time. He presents it as a delicious, yet stalled scene.
I went into my trip thinking that I would find dishes hearkening back to yesteryear. And while there are certainly those places that specialize in the classics - Jacques Imo’s, Antoine’s, Gallitores, etc. – we’re not going to live in the past.
This is about a vibrant scene with chefs pushing cuisine forward. This is a story about three restaurants taking the basics of their regions’ storied food traditions and building new and exciting traditions upon them. If the tourism bureau in Bayou country somehow gets hold of this magazine, this is a piece to let them know they are missing a big part of what they should advertise - not only what the New Orleans food scene was, but also what it is becoming.
Above: Crispy Dirty Rice Arancini. Below: Chef Nina Compton
Nina Compton rose to national prominence as a contestant on Top Chef Season 11 in 2013, which took place in New Orleans. Her focus on her native Caribbean food made her one of the more interesting competitors to follow in any season of the seminal show. In Season 11, she finished as the runner-up, and also the fan favorite competitor. In fact, New Orleans fell so in love with Compton that a mere two years after her season aired, she opened her first restaurant in the city.
At Compère Lapin, Compton has homed in on her Caribbean background and the surrounding environment to make her to make some of the most unique food in New Orleans. Even the name of her restaurant crystalizes her point of view. As the restaurant’s website states, the title refers to, “traditional Caribbean and Creole folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin.”
This swank joint is found at The Old No. 77 Hotel and Chandlery in a bustling metropolitan area of the city known as the Warehouse Arts District. Since Compton has grounded her feet in New Orleans, she has won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South and was named one of the Best New Chefs 2017 by Food & Wine. To say the city is a good fit for her would be vastly underestimating what she has going on.
Big flavors are on display as the restauranteur showcases Crescent City favorites with tastes of her home island of St. Lucia. You can find this in the smallest of bites, as evidenced in her appetizer of crispy dirty rice arancini. The rice balls, while Italian in origin, veer Southern here with the dirty rice preparation and take a detour to the islands with the accompanying sour orange mojo sauce. While arancini usually dominates its accompaniments, here it is a compliment to the tart mojo, which shines against the salty croquette.
At the beginning of her career, Compton worked for Daniel Boloud at Daniel in New York City and her French technique is on display with her roast half chicken over rice and peas. The bird comes out perfectly tender from a sous vide first treatment, and retains its juiciness even as the skin crisps up from the roasting. Meanwhile the rice and peas, a Jamaican classic, are cooked with coconut milk, a component with elevates and ties together the entire dish.
Her best success of Creole meets Caribbean is found in the seafood pepper pot, which features some of the Gulf of Mexico’s sweetest and freshest crustaceans and the mandatory freshwater bayou crawfish. The broth is soothing, flavorful, and with a nice amount of heat. On its own, it is slurpable. With the seafood, it’s a rich take on a dish found in cultures ranging from Guyana to Trinidad and Tobago.
On March 15, Compton opened her second New Orleans spot, Bywater American Bistro. I didn’t have time to go on this trip, but based on the food at Compère Lapin, it will be on the list upon my return visit.
Above: Cured Lemonfish Below: Chef Mike Gulotta
While Nina Compton has direct roots to the style of cuisine she is combining with Creole, Chef Mike Gulotta does not. A Louisiana product, born and bred, he ate all the Bayou classic plates as a youngster. So how does he go from that to the exciting Vietnamese-Creole mashup he is doing at Maypop? Basically, on a whim.
Gulotta admits he has no formal training in Vietnamese cooking and he isn’t even looking for something authentic in that regard. He grew up with a lot of Southeast Asian friends and what he’s done is create an ode to them and the subcontinent by bringing together his favorite elements of his and their native cuisines.
The chef broke big in his hometown with MoPho, a pho creole concoction soup shop, which is still one of the more popular dining destinations in the city. His prominence among national foodies rose as he competed on Iron Chef Gauntlet in 2017. Now, with Maypop, he has a chance to explode into the stratosphere of well-known chefs.
Maypop, which opened in late 2016, the same year Gulotta was named one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs, sits inside a sleek building which sits alongside other sleek buildings in the CBD. While the exterior is austere, once inside the restaurant get ready for a culinary thrill ride.
Something as simple as a Bibb lettuce salad is given a new lease on life with coconut cucumber ranch, green tomato relish, and a cashew crisp with chaat spice. This salad might be all southern on the bottom, but with a quick jaunt to India on top, it is revitalized and refreshed.
Lemonfish is lightly cured and then taken around the world with a crispy panisse – an Italian chickpea fritter, fermented black bean a la Southeast Asia and pickled mirliton – a version of the popular chayote squash used in Mexican cooking. The whole thing is tied together with a zippy vinaigrette and with all those flavors, the dish still feels refined and restrained, partially because of the artistic presentation.
Make sure to order spicy cumin lamb with brown butter potato agnolotti. The lamb takes on Middle Eastern hints as poppy seed yogurt, green garlic, and baby carrots fill out the plate. But the real star is the agnolotti. The Italian dumplings taste like they are stuffed with a delicious cheese and herb mixture, but it’s all a trick. As advertised, the entire filling is potatoes, treated with the luxury of a Robuchon-style spud.
This is high level stuff, but you can tell Gulotta is having fun and as a diner, you have no option but to join the party.
Above: Death By Gumbo. Below: Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramanto
Walking into Restaurant R’evolution, you feel like you could be walking into a time past. The Royal Sonesta Hotel in The French Quarter, which houses the large eatery, features a courtyard you could imagine Tennessee Williams sitting in, scribbling down scenes in a drunken frenzy for A Streetcar Named Desire.
The multidimensional restaurant has that same type of throwback feel with different rooms, including a Southern Parlor, a Courtyard Room, and a Market Room, along with an Expo Kitchen where diners can see some of the many chefs preparing food.
Watching the huge team function in unison under the confident leadership of Chef de Cuisine Jana Billiot, is a side benefit to the ridiculously good food they are putting out. The same Herculean effort is put into the front of house service with teams of three – a captain, a front waiter, and a back waiter – operating in conjunction to make sure the guest experience is impeccable. It is impressive for such a fancy restaurant to make guests feel so welcomed and appreciated.
R’evolution, from the minds of Louisiana native John Folse and Chicago powerhouse Rick Tramanto, says it all in its name. On its website, Folse is quoted as saying, “Restaurant R’evolution introduces Rick’s and my new approach to Cajun and Creole cuisine, with an aim to push the boundaries and expectations of dining in Louisiana.”
Though the eatery has been open for more than 5 years now, the same maverick spirit it began with remains. Start with Death By Gumbo, a scorching take on the famous stew. Literally, they scorch the roux, which is considered a no-no by traditionalists, but here adds a deep and smoky flavor, making this a memorable broth. Of course, before said broth hits the plate, you are already treated to an unexpected and inviting presentation.
The bowl arrives sans liquid, with a roasted quail stuffed with andouille sausage, oysters and rice sitting front and center. After the wait staff pours the stock over the fowl, the diner cuts the bird up, thereby constructing the gumbo by deconstructing most of the elements in it. It’s an intelligent play on the familiar with that smoky flavor carrying the dish to greatness.
Just as smartly put together is the sheep ricotta gnocchi with lobster. The gnocchi are really gnudi since it’s all ricotta, but whatever the chefs want to call these dumplings, they are delicious and a fine accompaniment to the fat hunks of sweet lobster. As with the gumbo, the real star of the plate is the broth, with vanilla and tarragon comingling with lobster roe, giving the whole dish a French coastal feel.
Expectations are constantly played with at Restaurant R’evolution. A bourbon cured salmon and asparagus salad sits on top of white asparagus panna cotta – more like a shmear - giving it a cream cheese and lox feel. There’s also zucchini basil pistou and pine nuts to add textures and alternative flavors.
The revolution is well on its way in New Orleans, only this revolution is not about cultures fighting one another for supremacy, but rather working together to create something new and great with all traditions well represented. That’s a revolution we want to be a part of.