The historic former church that was the longtime home of Christian’s Restaurant will soon reopen as a new and more modern restaurant.
It’s called Vessel, and it’s slated to officially launch in late June at 3835 Iberville St.
Vessel, which will extend from the one-time chapel out to a covered patio, has been quietly taking shape on this Mid-City side street. The partners behind the project say they’re out to create something different for New Orleans, combining the unique property with a menu and bar program that emphasizes fresh and seasonal ingredients in a social setting.
Behind the amber-hued panels of the old stained glass windows, craftsmen are now putting the finishing touches on the renovation. In the large kitchen, a team led by chef Nick Vella is finalizing a menu of small plates, shared platters, entrées and snacks that range as widely as French charcuterie and Turkish flatbreads.
“Coastal inspired, Mediterranean influenced,” is how Alec Wilder describes the approach.
Wilder and his fellow managing partners Eddie Dyer and Chuck Brechtel are developing Vessel along with long-time Bulldog and Lager’s International Ale House partners Terry Boudreaux and Rocco Bonura.
Launching a different concept
Vessel will be a significant departure from those bars and eateries, and also a much different concept from its predecessors at this historic address.
Christian’s and Redemption, the restaurant that followed it, were both formal. Wilder said Vessel was conceived to be more casual and appeal to a younger generation. It’s designed to be equally apt as a bar or a restaurant depending on how customers choose to use it.
Joe Pilié, the Commander’s Palace alum who is now Vessel’s general manager, applies the tagline “cup, coast, community,” and he ties the concept back to the Vessel name.
First, there’s the church building itself, which dates to 1914. Look up and the open rafters resemble an inverted ship’s hull. He also points to the coastal focus of the menu. And the idea of a “vessel” for drinks is important at the bar, he said. Serving the proper glassware for individual styles of beers, wines and cocktails will be a point of distinction at Vessel.
“It’s about building the drink through the glass, not trying to cram the drink into just any glass,” said Wyatt Lowrey, who is designing Vessel’s bar program.
Lowrey’s cocktail list is a mix of classics, “forgotten classics” and his own creations.
For beer, Vessel is tacking away from the trend for large draft selections found around town (including at the owners’ Bulldog Taverns). Instead, Vessel will serve a beer list with a specialty in bombers and other large format bottles.
Coastal inspiration in the kitchen
Chef Vella is joined in the kitchen by sous chef Chris Godfrey and pastry chef Amelia Watts. They’ve worked together in past gigs, including time at Compere Lapin under chef Nina Compton and at MiLa under chefs Slade Rushing (now at Brennan’s Restaurant) and Allison Vines-Rushing.
The shared background gives them confidence as they prepare to launch Vessel, said Vella.
Their menu will draw from many house-made staples, including pastas, ice cream and even cheese, and they’re interpreting the restaurant’s coastal orientation broadly.
Vella, whose family has roots in Malta, said he’s excited to showcase traditions from the Mediterranean that go beyond Italian and French classics, and he’s interested in exploring flavors from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific rim.
Culinary history under the steeple
Vessel’s old church building may look similar from the outside, with its high steeple and flanks of arched stain glass windows. But now the light filtering through shines down on a 35-foot-bar running the length of one wall, and the main room has been configured for a mix of communal tables, individual tables along a banquette and a lounge area. Outside, the covered patio should be ready in a few weeks.
The address is a century-old church building that is best known as the pre-Katrina home of Christian’s Restaurant, which opened here in 1977 after relocating from Metairie. It was named for proprietor Chris Ansel, a relative of the Galatoire’s restaurant family.
In its heyday, Christian’s was acclaimed for its modern perspective on Creole cuisine. The chef Roland Huet was known for his filet mignon stuffed with oysters in demi glace, and he’s credited with introducing smoked soft shell crab, a dish that lives on at other restaurants (notably Clancy’s).
Christian’s did not reopen after Hurricane Katrina. Eventually, the old church building returned to use a house of worship and then was converted back to a restaurant, called Redemption, which closed in 2015.
Vessel will serve dinner daily and will eventually add the lunch and brunch hours with their own menus.
3835 Iberville St.
Projected opening late June
Correction: an earlier version of this story included an error regarding the owners’ business relationship. It has been corrected above.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.