Raising the Bar
Where food and drink are evenly matched
Chicken sandwich with basil gin smash at Revel Cafe & Bar
SARA ESSEX BRADLEY PHOTOGRAPHS
A restaurant with a bar, or a bar with a restaurant? Too often, the quest for a tasty meal and a well-made cocktail involves a bit of sacrifice on one side or the other.
But a growing number of local establishments acknowledge that many diners – and drinkers – are indeed looking to have it all. So, they’re responding with food and beverage offerings, as well as versatile spaces, that satisfy those desires.
Mid-City’s Revel Cafe & Bar, helmed by cocktail icon Chris McMillian and his wife Laura, has the drink angle covered. But while the lauded libations bring many through the door – both a solid neighborhood crowd and the ‘cocktail pilgrims’ who seek out McMillian – those with a heartier appetite are rewarded with food that far exceeds the pub grub standard.
Revel’s kitchen is run by Jose Ayala, formerly of La Boulangerie (where he was head baker), Sucré, Emeril’s and several other well-known establishments. Ayala is also the McMillians’ son-in-law. Joining him in the kitchen is the McMillians’ son Sam (the fourth of their six children), making Revel truly a family affair.
“Here, we get to do our own thing together,” says Chris McMillian. “For me, this is a genuine act of finding a place you can be yourself … pursuing and sharing the things that interest me.”
For McMillian, those things are impeccably crafted cocktails, and the offerings at Revel reflect his storied career as a bartender and historian – Imbibe magazine named him one of the 25 most influential cocktail personalities of the last century. The extensive cocktail menu is divided into four sections: vintage cocktails, highlights of the current global cocktail renaissance, New Orleans classics and ‘Maison,’ which are McMillian’s own creations. What you won’t find at Revel are cocktails made with a laundry list of ingredients. “When you paint with all the colors, you end up with mud,” says McMillian, who favors simpler combinations, perfectly executed.
It is hard to take one’s eyes off McMillian’s hands as he muddles fresh basil leaves for a gin smash or juices a basket of lemons, all the while keeping up a steady narrative about the evolution of the Ramos Gin Fizz, the monument controversy or the emergence of hotels in antebellum New Orleans. His knowledge is wide and deep, and he jumps between topics as effortlessly as he whips up a batch of simple syrup or threads a toothpick with Luxardo cherries.
The food menu at Revel is centered on ‘simple’ sandwiches and small plates. What makes these shine, however, are Ayala’s breads: the sublime brioche bun that envelops the chicken sandwich (a crispy, zesty masterpiece) or slices of olive-studded focaccia served alongside white bean hummus. Ayala also puts out a daily dessert that’s anything but an afterthought, given his background. A lemon tart with a perfectly crumbly shortbread crust and café au lait crème brulée with beignets are among the short list of rotating desserts that Ayala plans to expand in the coming months.
“Whatever we do, it has to be good,” says McMillian. “That is the mantra. It doesn’t matter how simple it is. If it’s good, people will come for it.”
Further Uptown, on a cozy stretch of Magazine Street, is Cavan (pronounced CA-ven), the latest in a string of hits from LeBlanc+Smith (of Sylvain, Barrel Proof and Meauxbar fame). Cavan’s home is the stunningly restored Cockerton House, built in 1881. And it’s the kind of place that whispers, “Let’s see where the night takes us.” The roomy patio facing Magazine Street is a convivial spot for happy hour, or drinks and a bite after an afternoon of gallery hopping in the neighborhood. The airy downstairs dining room (once a ballroom where debutantes danced) invites guests to settle into a banquette for an unhurried meal, while the upstairs bar is a seductive hideaway for sipping cocktails among streetlight-bathed treetops.
The bar program at Cavan is overseen by Isaiah Estell, formerly of Sylvain, and reflects the differences between the two establishments. According to owner Robért LeBlanc, “It’s a lighter cocktail menu, not as whiskey heavy as at Sylvain. … The cocktails at Cavan are a little bit more reflective of what it’s like to have drinks in a front yard or on a porch in the summertime in a New Orleans residential neighborhood.”
Cavan’s dinner menu, which LeBlanc calls “classic coastal American,” reflects that lighthearted sensibility. Chef Ben Thibodeaux has taken the reins in the kitchen after the departure of Kristen Essig and serves up a range of dishes that complement the different ways people enjoy the restaurant and bar – from finger foods like Old Bay-spiced fries, to toasts designed for sharing, the fried oyster with kimchee and ginger remoulade is a favorite – to more substantial options like the butter-baked Gulf shrimp and a hearty porterhouse. For dessert, the piña colada ice cream sandwich is a refreshing standout.
Sunset drinks on the patio, a leisurely dinner downstairs and a nightcap at the bar – sounds like the perfect itinerary for a sultry summer night in New Orleans. Who says you can’t have it all?
Have Your Cake and Drink It, too
At Bakery Bar, treats from Debbie Does Doberge tempt the sweet tooth (cakes by the slice and as “Dobites,” in dozens of rotating flavors including Key Lime, I-Used-to-Be-Thin Mint and Heavenly Hash). Cocktails from Coquette/Twelve Mile Limit alum Jeff Schwartz cover both classic and newfangled creations. And savories ranging from charcuterie and cheese to a Gulf shrimp tartine (a play on the banh mi) round out the picture.
Drink & Eat
Revel Cafe & Bar
133 N. Carrollton Ave.
Lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays
3607 Magazine St.
1179 Annunciation St.