The streets of Covington were predictably quiet as we approached the Southern Hotel on a recent weeknight. Less expected was the bustle we found inside the hotel.
Small groups of people seemed to be on self-guided tours, inspecting art in the lodge-like lobby, roaming a courtyard the size of a pocket park and finding their way to the Cypress Bar, where lily-shaped venetian glass chandeliers hang over a luminous bar top and murals show sanguine scenes of north shore history.
Hotels can be destinations for more than lodging, and the Southern Hotel has been a magnet for activity in its small town since opening in May. The stylish and high-aiming restaurant Oxlot 9, which Amy and Jeffrey Hansell opened inside the hotel in August, extends the draw to anyone willing to travel a bit for a memorable meal.
As chef, Jeffrey Hansell takes cues from a broad map of Southern cooking, including but by no means limited to contemporary Creole cuisine and the flavors of his own native coastal Mississippi. It’s a highroad approach that is inspired by familiar regional traditions and staples, both refined and rustic, without succumbing to any caricatures.
Stuffed rabbit ($31) helps tell the tale. The meat was tender as a veal cutlet and paneed like one, too, but filled with tangy, creamy mozzarella and thin, darkly edged slices of spicy tasso ham. The combination of textures and flavors was riveting, and the presentation, with the golden-crusted rabbit split open over multicolor disks of watermelon radish, was beautiful.
Yellow edge grouper ($31) was grilled on a cedar plank, which sounded like a throwback to the planked salmon craze of the ’90s but proved an ideal way to amplify the meatiness of grouper and augment its mild flavor. The fish retained its full measure of moisture and picked up smoldering, smoky notes from the plank, a campfire effect further stoked by sweet roasted corn butter. For another entree, the almond flour batter encasing a long fillet of pompano ($31) worked like an elegant, velvety version of fish fry.
Rustic and refined often share the same plate, as with Hansell’s foie gras appetizer ($17). It’s cold-smoked with perique, the Louisiana-grown tobacco variety, which lends a deep earthiness (though no perceptible tobacco flavor) beneath the hard-seared surface of the foie gras. Draped over a biscuit, it melts in the mouth with warm, caramel flavors. Pork imbued a craggily crusted fried quail ($11), both in the form of hammy red eye gravy and bacon-braised rainbow chard, the ruby-red potlikker of which pooled under a bed of grits.
In its homeland of Alsace, a classic choucroute garnie illustrates with pork and pickled cabbage the close ties between that French border region and neighboring Germany. Hansell’s version ($33) is more like a meaty monument to the French/German culture of southeast Louisiana, especially where it involves the butcher shop. From a tidy and juice-soaked bed of cabbage rises a stack of smoked ribs, pulsing with paprika spice, a boudin cake as thick as a gastro pub burger patty and a fat link of garlic sausage holding up a sail of fried pork skin. There’s no other approach than to topple it all and divide and conquer.
Desserts find different twists for straightforward templates, like a very pretty pot de crème ($7) ringing with bright citrus and the pop of pomegranate seed. On one visit, we made a cheese plate ($12) our dessert and were rewarded with a tour of three Southern cheeses, spicy boiled peanuts, candied benne seed brittle and a whole palette of pickled vegetables for a finale that fit the whole regional mode of the meal.
Missteps —like an underwhelming persimmon gastrique on the roasted duck ($30) and some pacing issues with service as courses piled up or lagged without explanation — seemed minor compared to the overall narrative of originality and ambition playing out at Oxlot 9.
Clearly a big win for north shore fine dining, for New Orleanians the prospect of dinner here means driving past scores of excellent restaurants. But Oxlot 9 makes a compelling case, both with Hansell’s distinctive approach and its Southern Hotel setting, which is captivating for more than just a meal. These are essentials for the full package of a true destination restaurant, and they’re coming together at Oxlot 9.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.