Ursa Major (611 O’Keefe Ave., 504-309-8765), the largest and most ambitious restaurant planned for the CBD’s multi-use South Market District development, is slated to open this weekend, and it’s shaping up to be a head-turner that may also raise some eyebrows.
That’s because this sleek and modern-looking spot starts with some marked departures from some of the standard operating procedures for New Orleans restaurants. That includes a menu and cocktail list synched to the zodiac, interactive light fixtures and an online “ticketed” reservation system used by some of the country’s most high-profile restaurants.
“I don’t feel beholden to do the same things everyone’s been doing for 50 years just because they always did it that way,” said co-owner Kevin Farrell, who also owns the restaurant Booty’s Street Food in the Bywater. “This is new. Let’s keep it interesting and fresh and fun.”
Ursa Major is slated to open to the public Saturday, after a few nights of test runs for family and friends. The restaurant has been on the drawing board for more than a year as part of the Paramount apartment building in the South Market District, which is replacing a stretch of surface parking lots with a series of retail/residential/hospitality developments.
Along the way, Farrell and his partner, Nick Vivion, have used Booty’s as a staging area to try out new ideas and work with staff for Ursa Major. That includes Miles Prescott, previously executive chef at RioMar and Little Gem Saloon, who is now general manager at Ursa Major.
“I saw them open Booty’s, I saw them do things that flew in the face of everything I’ve seen in this town, and I saw it work,” said Prescott. “I saw an organization that wants to innovate.”
The name, a reference to the “big bear” constellation, is just the start of the astronomical and astrological theme running through the operation.
The contours of the custom-built cypress booths flow from one table to the next along star-chart patterns. Above, glass orbs are suspended by cords that reach back down to the floor. When guests tug on the cords, the fixtures bounce slightly and motion-activated lights inside twinkle and shine like stars.
Rather than focus on one cuisine, Ursa Major chef Daniel Volponi said the menu draws on flavors from around the globe.
“It’s based on tribes of people who followed the stars and navigated by the stars,” he said. “It’s a wide-open concept, and that’s the beauty of it for a chef.”
The menu is divided between individual small plates and larger platters composed of coordinated collections of small dishes. These platters are modeled on the thali of Nepalese and Indian tradition, though each corresponds with cuisines from around the world. For instance, one thali centers on a North African-style leg of lamb with accompanying vegetables, rice and dressings. Another platter brings Hawaiian style pork, salmon and squid with salads and sides. The small plates portion of the menu, meanwhile, runs a gamut from okonomiyaki, a Japanese cabbage pancake here lavishly dressed with sauces and pork belly, to Indian-style lentil fritters with shrimp and pork and chutney. Special menus each month will be designed along zodiac themes.
Bar manager Wyatt Lowrey explained that the cocktail menu follows suit. For instance, the opening list honors Gemini with drinks like the Social Butterfly, for the sign’s purported charisma, and evokes the sign’s image of twins with a pair of dueling gin cocktails served side by side (and named for twins Luke and Leia of “Star Wars” fame).
Once the restaurant begins its happy hour later in June, people will qualify for all-night happy hour pricing while their own zodiac sign is ruling the heavens.
For reservations, Farrell said Ursa Major will use a proprietary ticketing system that was developed by the innovative Chicago restaurant Alinea and its sister properties, and is employed now by fewer than 20 restaurants around the country. Diners will book a ticket online, at ursamajortickets.com, and pay a $20 per person deposit, which is nonrefundable but is taken out of the cost of their meal. The restaurant will also take walk-ins based on availability.
Farrell sees it as a way to reduce reservation no-shows, a vexing scourge of restaurateurs. He said it would also give the restaurant more opportunities to plan special menus and prix fixe dinners and to source specialty ingredients, with more assurance of the numbers to expect in their dining room on any given night.
“I think this business has stayed the same for too long,” Farrell said. “We’re not pretending that we have all the answers or that we always know best, but we want to try new things, and if they don’t work out we pivot.”
“It’s all with a wink and a smile,” he said. “It’s a lofty concept, but it will all come down to charm and execution.”
Ursa Major is the latest in a cluster of restaurants in the Paramount, following the debut last month of Blaze Pizza. A second location of the Company Burger, the bakery and café Willa Jean from the Besh Restaurant Group and a fast/casual expansion of the Uptown Vietnamese café Magasin are each slated to open later in the summer.
Beginning Saturday, Ursa Major will serve dinner nightly. It will add happy hour, brunch, lunch and sidewalk seating in the weeks ahead, and eventually it will also offer poolside service to residents of the Paramount apartments.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.