South of Bourbon
I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical of the name “SoBou” when I first heard it. It has a New York City feel, and despite the fact that SoBou is housed in the überhip W French Quarter hotel, this is not Gotham. The name is also a bit cute for my taste, but it's just a name and I don't let names deter me from enjoying a good meal any more than I let an artist's politics deter me from enjoying his or her work. Yes, sometimes I get “Cat Scratch Fever” stuck in my head. I'm not proud, but there you have it.
I was curious to see what the new restaurant would look like compared to Bacco, which it replaced. I always thought Bacco was one of the most attractive restaurants in New Orleans. I wasn't terribly concerned that the folks behind Commander's Palace would light the place up in neon and tinsel, but with a cocktail-centric theme, one never knows.
That theme also had me curious to see the menu and how the place would live up to the promise behind the “spirited restaurant” moniker.
I had a chance to dine at SoBou recently, and by coincidence I was there at the same time as another local food writer and the editor of another local publication. They didn't need to ask me twice to join them; as a result I was able to taste far more of the menu in one sitting than I could have otherwise afforded.
There are a few misses on the menu, but most of what I tasted was very good, and at least one of the dishes that I didn't enjoy is likely to be a big seller.
A lot of restaurant menus these days eschew the traditional categories of appetizer, entrée and dessert in favor of more whimsical divisions. At SoBou you can order “snacky things” or “small bites” to start your meal. Too much whimsy? Maybe, but they could put the pork cracklins under a heading called “Facknozzles” and I'd order the things again. As it is, the cracklins – which cost $1 for a pretty generous portion and also come with a vinegar-based spicy sauce for drizzling – are snacky things.
That section of the menu also has another notable item: yellowfin tuna cones. These are small ice cream cones filled with diced pineapple, coconut and tuna as well as an avocado-and-basil ice cream. It wasn't my idea to order the cones, because that's not a combination that really appealed to me on the page, but I'm glad I tried them. We discussed whether the ice cream was going to be sweet before they arrived, and it was, but it wasn't a distraction from the tuna and balanced the tartness of the pineapple. The coolness of the cones from the ice cream was a neat touch as well. This was a very interesting take on tuna tartare.
The small bites section of the menu has one of my favorite items at SoBou: the duck debris and butternut beignets. These are small, airy pillows of fried goodness that contain enough meat to give them some substance when you bite into them. They come drizzled with a sauce, and my initial impression was that it was too sweet, but after a second I changed my mind. It's a dish I'll order again.
I'd also order the andouille-and-tasso boulettes again. These come as a small bowl of meatballs in a rich and slightly spicy tomato sauce. The meatballs tended to fall apart as we picked them out of the bowl with our forks, but they tasted good. The shrimp-and-tasso pinchos served over grilled pineapple with a pickled ghost pepper jelly were a disappointment. The skewered shrimp were nicely flavored and not overcooked, but the sauce and the pineapple would have worked better over vanilla ice cream, and I wouldn't spend $12 for even three very good grilled shrimp. (Though I should point out that the entire meal at SoBou was comped by the restaurant, so I merely contributed to a generous tip instead of paying $12 for the shrimp.) The crispy oyster taco was much better, though not all that crispy. A flour tortilla is stuffed with three fried oysters and a sweet, sour and spicy slaw dotted with fish roe. It's not a traditional taco by any means, but man was it tasty.
The only item from the soup and salad side of the menu I tried was the cochon de lait gumbo. SoBou's chef, Juan Carlos Gonzales, is from Puerto Rico originally, but his wife is from these parts. The chef said the gumbo is his take on her family's recipe. It was another dish that I didn't particularly like at first; I agreed with a comment from one of my dining companions that it tasted mostly like barbecue sauce. But then I kept eating it. It's a substantial gumbo, with some potato salad that I actually mistook for some sort of bean mixed in. The smoky flavor lingered while I ate it, but the impression that I was spooning something that was designed to be served over ribs into my mouth went away after a couple of bites. The taste that I ended up with was mostly of the rich, tender pork.
The only things from the “not so small bites” part of the menu I tried were the foie gras burger and a grilled veal skirt steak that I believe was an off-the-menu special. The burger is the item I mentioned above that I figure will be a hit at SoBou but was way too much for me. It's foie gras and a sunny-side up egg with duck bacon and foie gras-enriched mayonnaise over a burger that, I suspect, had more foie gras stuffed in somewhere. The whole thing is accompanied by a mini Abita root beer float with – wait for it – foie gras ice cream. I defer to no one in my devotion to fattened goose liver, but I prefer it in moderation. Also, I have high cholesterol and the goddamn thing made my levels spike from sheer proximity.
If you've been paying attention to the restaurant industry over the last few years, you'll know that craft cocktails are a big deal these days. Spirits are a serious endeavor here. Drinks are the domain of two women, Lu Brow and Abigail Gullo. Brow is an award-winning mixologist who runs the show at the Swizzle Stick in the Loew's hotel. Gullo is new to the city, and because of the company I was keeping I got to sample tasting portions of a couple of her drinks. They're suitably complex for the cocktail aficionado but not so complex that you wonder who the hell would intentionally make something that tastes like licorice and burnt hair.
Gullo told us that Ti Martin, one of the restaurant's owners, had asked her to duplicate a drink she'd tasted on a vacation. It was called a Rum Dum Dum, and Gullo said that Martin didn't really know what was in it aside from rum. With some assistance from Jeff Berry and a lot of trial and error she came up with something that satisfied Martin. It's a combination of pineapple, passionfruit, lime and mint mixed with the aforementioned rum. It's a refreshing drink that didn't sway too far towards sweet or sour.
The Faubourg Tall Boy was another drink for summer weather. It's made with gin infused with Earl Grey tea, cassis liqueur, lemon and sparkling wine and served in a narrow glass.
The Vesper was the only drink I tasted that came right out and hit me over the head with alcohol. Vodka, gin, a bitter Italian apertif wine called Cocchi Americano and orange bitters make it up, and it was good if not subtle.
There are a number of wines available by the glass as well as the sort of beer selection you'd expect from a place that takes its adult beverages seriously. There are actually beer taps installed into several tables in one of the dining rooms so that customers can pour their own brews. (The taps are metered; it's not an endless pitcher of beer.)
I left the table before desserts were served, but I'm told that the citrus panna cotta came out looking like a caprese salad, with red-tinted orange slices standing in for the tomato, vanilla panna cotta for the mozzarella and mint for the basil.
SoBou is already a place to which I'm planning to return for a meal, but I'm more likely to make it back for a drink and some snacks first. There's an ample bar, a menu damn near built around bar food and some of the best cocktails I've had in quite a while. With Tales of the Cocktail coming up in a couple of weeks, you might want to check SoBou out too. Sobou is located in the W French Quarter hotel at 310 Chartres St., and is open seven days a week for breakfast from 7 to 10 a.m. and for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Call (504) 552-4095 to find out more.