We’d gotten back to our hotel and had plenty of time to shower, take a nap and get dressed up to meet some friends for dinner. Jonathan suggested we leave a little early so we can walk to Sylvain (the restaurant) by way of Bourbon Street.
Now I’m not one of those delusional people who think they’re a human GPS or anything (though I have an excellent sense of direction), but the restaurant was on Chartres Street and so was our hotel. Which meant this whole “by way of Bourbon Street,” idea was just some ruse of Jonathan’s to get me to walk more than necessary. Which would have been fine, but we’d been walking all day and I was hungry. Oh and did I mention it was 85° out with a moisture level of 100%? “Oh the humidity!”
But I was a good sport and we walked two blocks out of the way so we could walk three blocks down Bourbon Street and down another two blocks, only to get burnt by a cigarette, pelted with Mardi Gras beads, slip a little on some frat guy’s vomit; all while being whistled and hissed at by jiggly white trash strippers, shaking their lady bits to call dumb drunkards over to their yeasty clutch like the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey did with mariners into cliffs and rocks. I know! And that was all in like the first block.
Bourbon Street in New Orleans is definitely a sight to see, but for many of us who are no longer blessed with the 12-hour hangover, it’s something you only need to see once. It’s a young crowd in general, and the older folks are…well you can imagine what the older folks who like to hangout with drunk college kids are like. And I just say it’s not a scene for me. I wish I could say it was better during the day, but that’s when it smells like the expulsion of fluids from the night before are rotting away in the sun. Bourbon Street is not for me, and that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
Bourbon Street aside, what I am a total fan of is how the French Quarter is essentially a 24/7 applause to its native brothers and sisters alike. There’s this general sense of celebration, pulsing through the street like a party pumping through the arteries of the historic old city grid. Since drinking in public is legal, everyone seems to have an appreciation for something when they’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter. For some it’s the free jazz concerts that break into jam sessions at random on cobblestone streets.
Others like the ghost stories of haunted mansions and vampire swamps.
Some are believers and students of the West African Dahomeyan Vodun; or spiritual folkways of Louisiana Voodoo; while others are historians in search for the backstory behind the melting pot of Spanish, French, African, Caribbean, and American peoples who’ve made New Orleans what it is today. A survivor. The art lovers among us come to consume the whimsical colors of a vibrant local art scene enriched in the emotional depth of Mississippi River life and the destruction of Katrina’s wake. And then there are those of us like you and I, who walk the streets of New Orleans to celebrate the culinary triumph of recovering city’s booming food scene—one that warrants more and more respect from the food snobs of the world with each new NOLA restaurant that pops up.
New Orleans’ Sylvain Restaurant in the French Quarter
In the old (we’re talking originally built in 1796) carriage house right off the corner of Jackson Square is Sylvain. A restaurant housed in the same place New Orleans dignitaries lived, and where the ghost of Madame Aunt Rose Arnold stills resides, because it was her home and her brothel in the 1920s and why should she have to leave? Today Sylvain, named after the one-act comic opera (of the same name) that was performed in New Orleans the same year the carriage house was completed, is a celebration of its—and the French Quarter’s—love of emotionally perturbed poets, painters, writers, cooks, and musicians; who conveniently find protection from the skeptics under the world’s cultural umbrella we’ve coined The Arts!
Chef Alex Harrell continues the celebration of the French Quarter’s centuries old blend of French, Spanish, Caribbean, African, and now American cuisines with every dish, but not before putting a proprietary spin on them before they leave the kitchen. Under the warm glow from candles and antique fixtures, the ancient worn wood floors, forest green leather bar stools with wrought iron legs, and framed antiquity documents and an old American flag, you feel like you’re dining in one of the old dodgy taverns from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. If the weather is nice and you can swing it, dine on the back patio where there’s a small garden and a little more privacy.
And here’s what we ordered.
Chicken liver crostini: Maras Farm sprouts, dandelion vinegar. This chicken liver pâté was as smooth and rich as can be. The dandelion vinegar added a subtle sweetness to balance the deep umami flavor the liver. All on a deliciously crunchy charred bread.
Sheep’s milk ricotta bruschetta with kale pesto and roasted butternut squash. This was like candy, and all each of us needed was a single bite, and our palettes were reset from the richness of the chicken liver, and ready to go in whatever direction we were going next.
Southern Antipasti Plate: This is probably not the same combination of items every night, but we had a substantial helping of pickled okra, pickled squash, and pickled hard-boiled eggs, house-made grainy mustard, salami, crispy pork belly, and a fantastic black-eyed pea hummus. For those of us at our table who weren’t huge fans of pickled items (I know, I can’t believe I was dining with such heathens) this smorgasbord of treats was all but licked from the plate.
Shaved Brussels sprouts salad with apples, pecorino romano, and toasted hazelnuts. We’ve had our fare share of Brussels sprouts salads before, but the addition of diced raw apples and roughly chopped toasted hazelnuts really elevated this dish in a way we’d not seen before and really enjoyed. Besides, it was one of the first “salads” or plates of “greens” we’d seen that hadn’t been braised in sugar and pig parts first.
Pan roasted swordfish with fingerling potatoes, squash and corn with a salsa verde. This was fresh and light, but filling all the same. The swordfish, which we’ve found can be quite stringy, grainy, tough and dry; was perfectly cooked. It was moist, and delicate, a rarity with swordfish if you ask me. And when the acidity of the salsa verde mixed with the creaminess of the potatoes, I sort of danced in my seat, always enjoying a “healthier” dish that tastes so good I feel guilty enjoying it. I pretty much always assume if something tastes really great it’s gonna be covered in butter, cooked with cream, whole eggs, flour, and…well…you get the picture.
Our friend Justin had been to Sylvain a few times and raved about the braised beef cheeks. So it was no surprise to us when he emphatically raised his hand to order them while the waiter was still taking our drink orders. Turns our Justin was totally right, and this is why we’re still friends. The beef cheeks were as tender and juicy as can be, and served over a fluffy potato puree with sweet onions, field peas, and a natural jus that was dark and rich like a bitter thin coffee-molasses.
The gulf shrimp pirlou was also recommended by one of our local foodie friends—Fantaby Gaby—so we ordered it. The shrimp was slightly briny and cooked perfectly so they practically popped and burst in our mouths with the slightest start of each bite. The real star of this dish was the popcorn rice with winter squash, crispy pork belly pieces, braised kale, mushrooms, and sherry butter. Each bite, a celebration in our mouth. The crunchy salty skin of the pork belly pieces with the soft cubes of roasted squash and mushrooms. The sherry butter brought it all together—a bright homey comforting hug in each forkful.
Pan-fried pork shoulder with Coosa Valley grits, braised greens, and a mustard jus. The pork shoulder was shredded and then pushed back together into a loose patty of sorts, before it was pan-fried to give it a little bit of a crust, which barely held the buttery soft umami pork pieces together before they could be served with the sweet braised greens below.
The country-fried steak was fantastic! The breading was light, if you can imagine that, and the steak was tender and buttery. The healthy portion of two (yes two steaks) was served over a carrot puree, sautéed local greens, and tomato-pancetta gravy. This time, Sylvain’s masterful chefs did the reverse of the swordfish dish, and were able to make a typically heavy country-fried steak dish feel fresh, clean, complex.
For dessert we had their signature dark chocolate pot de crème and their bourbon pecan ice cream. If I had to do it all over again, and I hope we get to very soon, we’d just order four dark chocolate pot de crèmes—one for each of us!