Pub food goes upscale

A generous pour of hybrid bar/restaurants topped off the New Orleans dining scene recently. Many feature established restaurateurs branching out into more casual settings, serving uncompromised food to complement carefully crafted wine and cocktail menus along with (in some cases) live entertainment. While this trend isn’t necessarily new – think Delachaise – it has arguably entered a second generation yielding a far wider range of options. For diners looking to meld their drinking and dining experience into one indulgent stop, ’tis now the season.

The new kid on the block is Sylvain, which opened in mid-October smack in the heart of French Quarter just off of Jackson Square. Despite its high-traffic environs, the space presents a welcome oasis. Dark but washed-out wood tones, a custom copper-sheathed bar and courtyard space in the rear contribute to this and are manifestations of the thought process that went into the layout by co-owner Sean McCusker.

“The motivation was to present something that was really cohesive and gave diners a sense of place in terms of art, food and environment all working together,” McCusker says. “I wanted something a little more open, where diners were not necessarily locked into a little ‘four people at a table’ world.” Touches like the wider bar top to accommodate diners work toward this goal.

For inspiration, McCusker drew on his experiences in travel and publishing, looking to some degree at the gastropub movement popular in New York, Paris and other major cities. “Ours is not strictly gastropub food – that tends more toward different cuts of meat and things like that – but it’s kind of the same principle: having high-end food being done in a casual bar setting.”

The cocktail program is a big part of it as well. “We want to embrace the whole resurgence of the ‘cocktail culture’ but not jump on it too hard,” he says. “In a sense, that movement has already had its way in other places. Still, we embrace all those elements of handcrafted cocktails like fresh juices and high-end liquors but lean more toward classic combinations without being pretentious about it.”

Try the Chicken Liver Crostini dressed with dandelion gastrique and fresh mustard sprouts sourced from local chef Gerard Maras. A plate of pickled vegetables makes for good sharing, the acidity of the pickling solution is low and offset by an intriguingly complex seasoning. An entrée of Crispy Pork Shoulder features pulled pork shaped into patties and pan-seared with a layer of mustard and breadcrumbs garnished with cubes of pickled watermelon rind. Another entrée of Braised Beef Cheeks is suggestive of the gatropub inspiration.

Heading up the kitchen is Chef Alex Harrell, who has worked with Gerard Maras and Aaron Burgau, among other local talents. “When I was casting about for a chef, my friend Aaron Burgau brought him in,” McCusker says. “We set up a sample menu for 10 dishes, and Alex just nailed them. We were on the same page with everything he did.”

One sandwich likely to become a favorite is the “Chick-Syl-vain,” inspired by McCusker’s weakness for Chick-fil-A and featuring a buttermilk-fried chicken breast, house-made pickles and a bun sourced from La Boulangerie. “All we’re trying to do is pay homage to a classic while doing it our own way,” McCusker says. “No offense to Chick-fil-A, but ours is a little sexier.”

On the other side of town, Oak Wine Bar is the latest addition to the revitalized strip of Oak Street. It shares some pedigree with the folks from Patois (Aaron Burgau set up the menu), and former Restaurant August sommelier Michelle Gueydan set up the wine list. Rounding out the offerings is a short list of specialty cocktails such as their Satchmo, with Knob Creek Bourbon, Peychaud’s bitters, orange and a brandied cherry.

Try the Gnocchi peppered with chunks of Guanciale, wonderfully salty jowl bacon. The pillow-soft potato pasta is well executed, comes bathed in a creamy sauce of brown butter and sage and is garnished with Parmigianino Reggiano shavings. Also good – if a bit salty – was a plate of Korean-style short ribs with housemade kimchee. The skinny cross-sections begged to be worked to the bone to scrape off every bit of their delicious char. Be sure to share an order of the house-cut fries, which come with aioli.

The space is striking, surprisingly cavernous and contemporary in décor. Aim for the table in a nook at the far right upon entering if possible. Decidedly more bar than restaurant, Oak features live music every night on a dais near the front and can get loud.

John Harris doesn’t have much of a commute to his latest venue Bouligny – the tavern is grafted onto Lilette with little more than a sliver of courtyard separating the two. A beautiful retro-hip interior, decorated with 1960s-era Danish modern teak lounge pieces and a comfortable banquette, make this a great place to relax and people watch. A relatively simple menu, heavy on crostini and offbeat bar snacks such as the Curried Popcorn, skews this more to the bar than restaurant side of the spectrum. Furthermore, the menu seems designed to soak up alcohol with heavier items that tickle the belly more than the mind – not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you want four-bean intellectual cuisine one can always go next door. In the meantime, enjoy indulgent Gouda Beignets and Kobe-style “Pigs in a Blanket”. A satisfyingly rich Marrow and Garlic Bruschetta will help fill the belly. Lusciously creamy Burrata Bruschetta gets some pop with quality sea salt and a layer of complexity with truffle oil. A specialty cocktail menu along with a short list of wines by the glass is offered, along with a far more substantive selection of choices by the bottle.

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