Can a restaurant based on fusion also be authentic? After eating at Maypop more or less constantly for the past few months I’m convinced it can.
Maypop's fusion intentions are made clear enough by the mural stretching across the dining room, a clever, accordion-like piece that, from different angles, blends the Mississippi and Mekong river deltas.
But a fuller measure of Maypop is found between the folds. What emerges is not just a kitchen mixing flavors of Louisiana and Southeast Asia, but rather a modern New Orleans restaurant that is ambitious, affable and bent on forging original cuisine.
Maypop can present elegant, food art compositions like cured red snapper, the pristine curls of fish formed into a wreath between intense bits of fermented beans, the mellow earthiness of chickpea croutons and ripples of crisp radish and herbs. Other dishes can seem brawnier yet still unravel across the palate in savory layers. See the squid ink bucatini with long, hollow noodles tangled around oysters edged with char and glittered by a toasty breadcrumb crust flickering with citrus and chile spice.
These dishes aren’t about pressing together two cuisines, and neither is Maypop. It’s about chasing flavor, without regard to borders.
Tools of the trade
After all, what gets you to brisket crusted with miso-spiked blue cheese is not a melding of separate traditions. It's an interest in new ways to bring distinctive pleasures to the plate, and an open door policy about the tools that get the job done. In this case, the result is a landslide of back-of-the-mouth umami from an intense, sculpted dish you unpack slowly, bit by bit.
The name of the chaat salad references India’s obsession with tangy, crunchy, savory snacks and this light, deceptively complex dish represents it with ranch dressing made with coconut and cucumber and a shattering-crisp Vietnamese crepe made with cashews.
In Maypop’s kitchen, the season's run of fat soft shell crabs is an opportunity to create a different type of Amandine, one with almonds shot through the fry batter and pressed into a rich, roasted essence for the frothy brown butter.
For dessert, an inkling of lime and Chinese five spice imbues the Maypop tart, built over a gingersnap crust as dense as fudge.
Upscale, and a step up
Maypop opened around Christmastime in the CBD’s new Paramount building. The feel is upscale/casual, with a contemporary, clean-lined style somewhere between bistro and gastropub. Dinner starts with an amuse bouche — a bonbon-sized beignet under a strong pulse of wasabi cream — while bare tables and a large, dinner-ready bar set the stage. Plants suspended like hanging gardens divide the bar from the dining room, where broad windows frame downtown views.
The restaurant was created by chef Michael Gulotta and his partners. In a way it’s the high-end step up from MoPho, their modern take on the Vietnamese noodle house in Mid-City. Maypop also has elements from Tana, the chef’s Italian eatery inside the Tulane Avenue lounge Treo.
If the influences are polyglot, the kitchen also has multiple perspectives from its personnel. Gulotta has earned national recognition in the food world, but Maypop is not a one-man act. Chefs de cuisine Trey Smith and sous chefs Adam Bean and Nick Stackeni develop Maypop’s ever-changing menu together, with pastry chef Katie O'Hara in charge of desserts.
Still, Gulotta has built some trust in his brand from the track record of MoPho and Tana. That’s good, because Maypop often asks diners for a leap of faith, and its menu offers no safe harbors for the tag-along in your group who is hoping for a burger. This is an expensive restaurant fully committed to its own style. There is no hedging, and it’s not for everyone.
Downtown lunch, dim sum brunch
One key part of Maypop's approach can be a dish's downfall too. The kitchen packs a lot of flavors onto each plate, and when they don’t line up right they can leave you wishing for the clarity of a nice steak and a dose of restraint.
So it was with a combination of just a few crawfish tails and a fried disk of pied de veau (jelly-textured calf’s foot) in an oily pottage that wasn’t quite a salad, wasn’t really a soup and was too weird to work. Strips of pork belly topped with corn and blueberries and a custard made from grits was meant to signal summer but felt too jumbled, too forced and not substantial enough to justify an entrée near the $30 mark.
Maypop’s prices drop considerably for weekday lunch, though dishes are just as complex and high-aiming. The hot fried chicken blazes with the ginger/black pepper/garlic heat of vindaloo and is contrasted with crisp, fresh and pickled vegetables and strawberries. Sweet peas are rendered down to a dip for crinkly-crusted roti bread, with rounds of North African lamb sausage and dollops of labneh.
At weekend brunch, Maypop converts to a downtown dim sum parlor, with a menu (not push carts) that starts with traditional dumplings and expands from there. Crisp-edged scallion pancakes become vehicles for a chopped kimchi and oyster salad. A chunky, funky XO sauce dribbles over blocks of turnip cake.
The cocktail list continues the Asian fixation, with ginger and lemongrass in heavy rotation, but simpler pairings work better with Maypop's intricate dishes. The large bar has a good range of local draft beer and the wine list, while short, is moderately-priced and well chosen for the menu with crisp whites and fruit-forward reds.
At Maypop the flavors are big and complex. The bearing is upscale but still grounded and approachable. The result is a bold newcomer that feels like it belongs in New Orleans. That adds up to authenticity for me.
611 O’Keefe Ave., 504-518-6345
Dinner daily; lunch Mon.-Fri., dim sum brunch Sat. and Sun.; happy hour, Mon.-Fri., 4-6 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $10-$16; entrees $18-$35 (dinner), $15-$18 (lunch)
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