The phrase “hotel restaurant” doesn’t ring a lot of bells. Sure, there are the glamorous throwbacks and some name-dropping locations that trade on celebrity chefs, but even these tend to gloss over the fact that hotels aren’t perceived as hotbeds of iconoclastic kitchen talent. They have a business to run, and restaurants fill a utilitarian role – typically providing breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, as well as room service and event catering. These are responsibilities that can be a turn off for many talented young chefs.

This is changing. Smaller, boutique hotels now see restaurants as an amenity that might set them apart from the pack and provide some outsider cred. True, the turnkey food service obligations are usually part of the deal, but smaller outfits can be more amenable compared to the 800 pound gorillas in the market. This phenomenon is strong here in New Orleans, which makes sense given the size of our hospitality pie as well as the local passion for food and dining. Here is a look at a few.

Joie de Vivre, a collection of 28 boutique hotels, recently opened The Troubadour and its showcase restaurant Petit Lion. Executive Chef Ben McCauley’s resume includes stints at Shaya and Domenica, but it was time spent in Charleston, South Carolina with Frank Lee that helped fuse his love of southern cuisine with respect for local farmers and businesses.

McCauley is quick to praise his team, including his Chef de Cuisine Jeremy Stephens, his Sous Chef Tom Branighan and his pastry chef Shalonda Berry. Each brings their talent to the mix. “I have a southern background. Jeremy has an Asian background and Tom spent time with a lot of French chefs. Shalonda has her pastry background. So, we all have our strengths and we work together.”

In creating their menu, they asked themselves what you might expect to see if you came to a French bistro in the southern United States. Seafood figures prominently, as do regional touchstones such as fried chicken and pickled shrimp. But it’s the French technique and the layering of flavors that sets this menu apart. Take the steak au poivre. To build this dish a selection of peppercorns are steeped in Calvados – an apple brandy. The sauce is built upon a foundation of veal stock and this brandy goes in along with some pepper jelly for sweetness. The prickliness of the peppercorns infuses the sauce – it isn’t mere pepper, it’s the essence of pepper – and it makes this dish special.

Recommended also is the sea bass with roasted fennel, root vegetables and sauce Americaine. This lean fish is first poached with white wine, garlic, shallots, thyme and butter. Then the sauce is built with traditional lobster bisque thickened with rice that has been cooked in lobster stock, reinforcing and layering the flavors. Dollops of garlicy rouille add some bite.

The dessert menu includes The Yorkie, with mint chocolate chip ice cream and homemade cocoa puffs. Astute diners will recognize it from chef Philip Lopez’s menu at Root (Lopez is also listed as Executive Chef and was instrumental in putting the project together). The cocktail menu includes the requisite list of craft cocktails, including the eye-opener Dawn Treader, made with red absinthe, cold brewed coffee and half-and-half – the perfect hair-of-the-dog for guests that opt for the hotel room listed on the dessert menu for $195.

At the Old No 77 Hotel and Chandlery, chef Nina Compton’s Compère Lapin has steadily been collecting acclaim. In fact, walking into the lobby it seems as though the restaurant has gobbled up the hotel in terms of bustle. Here then is another situation in which a well-positioned restaurant can bring big-time acclaim to a small but ambitious hotel group. In this case it’s Provenance Hotels out of Portland, with most properties clustered in the Pacific Northwest.

Compton’s food is informed by her Caribbean roots and expressed through the application of Creole, French and Italian cooking techniques. “I’m from St. Lucia and I think there are lots of similarities between there and New Orleans, especially with the Creole cooking,” Compton points out.

The menu offers finger foods such as conch croquettes. Conch, an ingredient that people associate with the Caribbean, is treated differently here. “I wanted to do something fun and playful but I also didn’t want to do a conch fritter. That is a Spanish-style dish based on a béchamel rather than a batter.” The resulting lightly breaded sticks have a soft interior and pair well with the accompanying pickled pineapple tartar sauce.

Look, too, for dishes that feature Hamachi, a buttery fish often found on sushi menus, but here gets a more versatile role. The Leche de Tigre Ceviche is marinated in a blend of hot peppers, ginger, garlic and onion. “Living in Miami you’ll come across a lot of ceviche, but this is one you don’t see often,” Compton says. “It is light and refreshing but packed full of flavor.”

For main courses, the curried goat is a more unusual dish but has also been popular since day one. “For guests it’s an introduction to my cooking, and also I think it lets them get a little out of their comfort zone,” Compton says.


Still Shining

At the Ace Hotel, Josephine Estelle continues to shine. Try the snapper crudo, which zags in an unusual direction with brown butter and hazelnuts and a bit of Meyer lemon for brightness. The highlights of the menu are the pasta dishes, which showcase homemade noodles. The bucatini is simple but classic, with Parmesan, garlic and chili, while the Rigatoni is richer and more complex thanks to the shreds of pork shoulder, pancetta and collard greens. Coffee nerds will appreciate the adjacent Stumptown, as well is its inclusion in the drinks menu.


Hotel Happenings

Petit Lion
The Troubadour Hotel
1111 Gravier St.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Compère Lapin
The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery
535 Tchoupitoulas St.
Lunch and dinner daily
Josephine Estelle
The Ace Hotel
600 Carondelet St.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily; brunch weekends