Sylvain Joins a Growing Trend
Sylvain is a member of a rapidly growing demographic in the local restaurant world: restaurant-bars. Others include Oak, Bouligny Tavern, Three Muses and the Delachaise, the first three of which are also newcomers to the scene. Sean McCusker, the driving force behind Sylvain, told me in an interview some months ago that he intended it to be a gastro-pub along the lines of the Spotted Pig in New York City. Like the Spotted Pig, Sylvain aims to serve food that’s at once comforting and sophisticated while keeping an equal focus on the drinks. McCusker owns Sylvain with Robert Leblanc of LRG, the man behind Loa, Capdeville, LePhare and Republic.
If you’ve followed restaurant trends over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of places are serving small plates in place of or in addition to a more traditional menu. It’s possible to see the current spate of restaurant-bars as a progression of that trend. If one were cynical, one might conclude that Sylvain and its fellows exist more because the sale of drinks is more profitable than that of food. But if both the drinks and the food are good, does it really matter?
Sylvain is located a stone’s throw from Jackson Square. (I know this because I tested it. I don’t recommend trying it yourself. Jackson Square is almost always full of people, and not all of them are as forgiving as Mr. Hidetoshi Kurosawa, in town last week from Tokyo. I mean, I think he forgave me. I don’t speak Japanese, and I scampered off pretty rapidly when it became clear he was unconscious. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a pretty neat location as long as you’re not chucking bits of the street around.)
The structure that houses Sylvain was originally built in 1796, and owner McCusker has taken pains to maintain its look. He has the place filled with antiques and used recycled wood for much of the renovation from the building’s former life as La Marquise bakery. There’s a bar to your left as you enter from Chartres Street, as well as seating for 40 or so. An exit at the rear of the room opens onto a small double patio linked by a short, narrow alley that faces the kitchen. The outside areas provide seating for another 30 or so. It’s a typically beautiful French Quarter space, and in good weather it’s a fantastic place to spend an hour or two.
The menu isn’t extensive, but it covers a fair amount of ground between high- and low-end food. Starters include a chicken liver crostini with Maras Farms sprouts and a dandelion gastrique, an artisan cheese plate, a daily soup preparation and one rather odd item: champagne and fries. McCusker says that he’d attended a Veuve Cliquot tasting a few years ago, and one of the representatives of the champagne house told him that the sparkling wine was a perfect pairing for french fries. So Sylvain’s menu serves hand-cut fries with champagne for $50 or $90, depending on the size of the bottle you order. (The fries can also be ordered separately).
There’s the de rigueur seasonal market salad on that portion of the menu, which also offers asparagus with a poached farm egg, Parmigiano Reggiano and lemon and shaved brussels sprouts with apples, pecorino cheese and chopped hazelnuts. The brussels sprouts are thinly sliced and raw, and their slight bitterness matches well with the tart apple and the pecorino.
Entrees are similarly a mixed bag of high-concept bistro and down-home pub fare. There’s a burger and a buttermilk-fried chicken breast sandwich, as well as pan-roasted scallops with tomato confit, potatoes and a citrus vinaigrette. Braised garlic sausage comes with a grilled fingerling potato salad, Napa cabbage and a mustard sauce, and pork shoulder is formed into disks, fried and served over mashed potatoes with sautéed spinach and watermelon pickle. When I first dined at Sylvain, I didn’t read the menu very closely and thought I was ordering pork belly instead of shoulder. I was pretty surprised when the dish came, and I have to admit I was disappointed until I tucked in. It’s probably not good for my cholesterol, but slow-cooked pork shoulder is good eating –– and maybe even better when it’s fried. Again chef Alex Harrell’s kitchen kept things balanced with the crisp, tart pickle, one of many varieties made in-house.
Harrell is one of a number of local chefs who started under chef Gerard Maras, and he was introduced to McCusker by another of that number, Aaron Burgau of Patois. In addition to working for Maras, Harrell did time with Ralph’s on the Park, but he left New Orleans after Katrina when his wife was due to give birth. The couple went to Charleston, S.C., but Harrell wanted to come back, and McCusker said that he “nailed” their interview.
There’s not a large selection of desserts on the menu; an Abita root beer float, a chocolate pot de crème and a daily selection of sorbets are available, and the artisan cheese plate shows up on the menu here, as well. That’s not a big deal; this is a place where an after-dinner drink would stand in nicely for something sweet.
The drink menu was designed by bar manager Murf Reeves, who before Sylvain was at Bar Tonique. The cocktails are a mix of originals and Reeves’ takes on classics. The Final Word, for example, is a version of the Last Word cocktail and is composed of Bulleit whiskey, lemon juice, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and green chartreuse. The Pressure Drop is a slight variation on a cocktail from Death & Co., a New York bar that is well-regarded among cocktail aficionados. In descending order of volume, it’s Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Meletti amaro, Dolin dry vermouth, pear eau de vie, and a single drop of angostura bitters. It’s an amazing drink: floral, semi-sweet and powerful. Although Sylvain is really focused more on cocktails, there’s a pretty good selections of wines, mostly on the high end of the price spectrum. There’s a limited though diverse selection of beers, from Schlitz to Brooklyn Lager.
Reeves makes his own bitters and a syrup for cola that blew me away. Mixed just with soda water, it redefined what cola can be; it’s sweet but not cloying, with a subtle spiciness and a hint of vanilla. It would make for a pretty damn good Cuba libre. McCusker said they’d had a good time doing research on cola pairings other than rum.
I’ve been impressed by what I’ve experienced at Sylvain. It’s only been open a short time, and I know that there are some people who recommend you don’t visit a new place for some months after it opens. Those people are fools. Stay away from Sylvain if you want, but you’re only missing out on what I and a lot of other people are enjoying right this red-hot second.
Sylvain is located at 625 Chartres St. and is open from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until midnight on Friday and Saturday and until 10 p.m. on Sunday. Call 504/265-8123 for more information or for reservations.