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Restaurants Taking Comfort Food Out of Its Comfort Zone
Southern food is getting a makeover.
With its cold snaps and shortening days, fall is the season for comfort food. Few genres speak better to this than Southern cuisine, with its emphasis on flavors that seem to reach back through time and tap into childhood memories. And while New Orleans isn’t a traditional Southern food town, several local chefs have put a focus on this style of cooking in recent years. They also bring their own voice to the table, using their talent to approach traditional Southern fare with a unique perspective. The restaurant at the Hotel Modern at Lee Circle has been a bit of a merry-go-round over the past few years.
Dominique Macquet’s Tamarind gave way to the placeholder pop-up Why Not? before its latest iteration, Tivoli & Lee. Chef Mike Nirenberg, who worked in the aforementioned restaurants as well as at Oak and Patois, has been one constant through this change, and this new restaurant – his own – that has emerged from the fray, offers clear direction on what he terms “modern Southern” cuisine.
“The modern thing is that I think people are going back toward eating stuff that’s sourced locally, prepared simply and done well. I’m not talking about ‘modern’ in technique. We’re not doing foams,” Nirenberg says. “It is classic Southern flavors and definitely Southern ingredients used to prepare dishes in a way that people haven’t seen before. But still it’s about being back to basics, simplicity.”
The focus is on sourcing as much as possible locally and letting the ingredients shine. The twist is that he often mines flavors from our collective childhoods and approaches them in a different way. For example, tater tots get re-imagined with diced Andouille sausage and manchego cheese with a ramekin of creamy green onion dip. It is a creative and approachable version of comfort food and a recommended starter.
Bread comes from Dong Phuong and Maple Street Patisserie, vegetables come from Covey Rise Farms and meat comes from its sister company Chappapeela Farms. These components come together harmoniously in the pork belly sliders, dressed up with a spicy slaw and Hoisin-sauce glaze on sweet brioche rolls. Traditional preservative techniques, of which Nirenberg is a fan, are featured on the entrée menu. Take his Eden Farms pork confit. To make it, he cubes pork butt, immerses it in bacon fat and slow roasts it in the oven. It cools off, preserved in the fat, and then the cubes are sliced and seared in bacon fat to order. “It gets crispy from the pan and is super-flavorful from the slow confit,” he says. “It is just a fun way to work with pork butt.”
Going into October, look for root vegetables, heirloom tomatoes and squash to appear on the menu. “October is a good time,” he says. “You still have some of those late summer ingredients and also the fall stuff.”
A chance encounter a while back at Sylvain in the French Quarter between Alex Harrell and chef Kristen Essig helped to fill a big pair of shoes at Sainte Marie Brasserie. This forward-looking restaurant on Poydras Street needed a new chef following the tragic death of Ngoc Nygen last January.
Essig, who lives in the French Quarter, bumped into Harrell at the bar there. The pair had worked together at Bayona a while back and they got to talking about Sainte (also referred to as “Ste.”) Marie. “I told him, well if you’re looking for a new chef, think about me!” Essig had been working as a private chef for the past several years and was looking for a new challenge. “A month later they called me and I came in and interviewed and that was it.”
While not explicitly Southern, Essig shares a similar approach as Nirenberg. A veteran of Anne Kearny’s Peristyle as well as Bayona, Essig immediately put the focus on sourcing locally and emphasized using quality ingredients in creative ways rather than any modernist tricks or gimmicks to make her food shine. “Almost all of our produce, meat and – of course – seafood is local. That is our main focus.
I think you’ve got to have that before you can do anything else,” Essig says.
Regarding a Southern slant, she recently ran a pork chop dish smothered with pepper jelly served on a sweet potato cake with house-made pancetta-braised crowder peas (a staple of soul food cooking). For a more modern take on Southern fare (if you have a chance to try it before melon rolls out of season) don’t miss her pork belly and watermelon appetizer. “We braise it with ginger and then use local turnips pickled with a little bit of rice wine vinegar, a little orange zest,” she says. “We use red and yellow melon from Mississippi and we finish the dish with basil oil.”
One new Southern dish that gives a nod to New Orleans’ claim as the northernmost port of the Caribbean is her barbecue jerk shrimp appetizer. “We serve it over coconut rice dressed up with a little bit of soy and coriander seed, along with green onions. It’s a fun twist on the southern New Orleans barbecue shrimp but with Caribbean jerk flavor.” This dish is accompanied with mango chow chow made from cabbage, mustard seeds, red pepper, mango white wine vinegar and sugar. The chow chow is a creation of her cook, Sam, also the creator of a ya ka mein dish that started out as a family meal but was so popular it rolled over onto the restaurant’s main menu.
Going into October, Essig is excited to be working with ingredients such as indigenous but not often used Muscadine and scuppernong grapes, as well as homemade preserves. “Looking ahead to fall, I like to use my pepper jellies and do something with my preserve
d peaches,” she says, “by preserving them I can use this good stuff later in the year.”
Other places around town with an emphasis on modern Southern cuisine include Coquette, right, where chef Michael Stoltzfus puts a pronounced emphasis on local sourcing and seasonal ingredients as in a recent dish of pork loin, cashews, figs and purslane bound with Louisiana honey. In the French Quarter, SoBou plays it a bit closer to home with a focus on New Orleans street foods and eyebrow-raising drink-friendly indulgences such as pork cracklin’ with pimento cheese fondue and butternut squash beignets with foie gras fondue and a chicory-coffee panache.