An older restaurant closes, and a new restaurant takes its place. Such is the natural order of things, and we’ve had ample opportunity to see this cycle of life play out across the busy New Orleans restaurant scene lately. The new Meauxbar, however, presents a more nuanced case.
This longtime French Quarter restaurant changed hands over the spring, passing from its founders, who built it into a beloved but resolutely low-key bistro, to new operators, who essentially transplanted themselves from the more high-profile CBD restaurant Ste. Marie and were eager to assume Meauxbar’s mantle as a neighborhood stand-by.
They kept the Meauxbar name and the basic layout, but changed just about everything else. The result is a restaurant that still fills the same general niche but along the lines of a much different style.
The chef, Kristen Essig, was well known in restaurant circles when she took the helm at Ste. Marie in 2013, and in short order she had lifted and solidified that restaurant’s culinary identity. She hasn’t skipped a beat since relocating the action here, though her modern, seasonal menu does show accommodations both for a radically smaller kitchen at the French Quarter restaurant and the decision to keep some familiar touchstones of the old Meauxbar in circulation.
Even these dishes are recast, however. Bolognese ($19) is ostensibly one holdover, but for Essig’s version, spaetzle replaces pasta, adding a ribbing edge of crust and chew between the meaty ragu, a ground blend of beef, chicken and pork joined by smoky bits of pancetta.
Past experience with the crab and quinoa salad ($16) at Ste. Marie is the only way a dish like this could be considered familiar. Smoked goat cheese plays gently through both the grain and the sweet crabmeat, punctuated by fresh peaches and the snap of green beans. A newer appetizer pairs shrimp and tomato aspic ($15.50), but don’t start picturing gelatin molds. It works like a shrimp remoulade in a pool of gazpacho, with a slight gel binding a bright, cool tomato sweetness you’ll want to slurp from the bowl.
It was a unique and beautiful rendering of local flavors, and it badly outshined the dish we ordered beside it, a goat cheese tart ($12) that carried too many components (Niçoise olives, white anchovies, caramelized onions) in a competition of strong flavors with no clear winner.
The chef signs her name to each menu with a marker, a personal touch that seems apt here since even dishes from the traditional bistro repertoire bear her signature.
Chicken liver pâté ($9.50) slathered in thick dollops over grilled bread is a simple and delicious starter, done a turn better with a fine dice of beets that cuts the richness and adds a second story of flavor. Paneed pork ($22), the very picture of comfort food, arrives in a surprisingly composed preparation, topped with a salad of mushrooms, al dente asparagus and bits of that spaetlze again, all of it lightly glistening and bringing a lushly varied texture to the crisp pork. Then there’s the French onion grilled cheese ($16.50), which is like a very beefy French onion soup enclosed entirely in brioche.
The dessert list sounds straightforward, though the most unassuming example, the basil semifreddo ($8) is a true overachiever. It was like eating chilled melon crossed with cream, an understated finale with bits of green herb and even salt creeping through the dense, mellow custard. The short cocktail list is mostly centered on subtle updates to classics. The wine list covers the expected varietals with uncommon labels, and adds a significant sideline in sparkling wines.
Essig’s deft reworking of bistro standards and comfort food flavors makes this restaurant broadly accessible, and maybe more so than the new Meauxbar at first appears. The new interior design goes more sleek and contemporary than its predecessor. With austere décor and walls done in a silvery shade of moonlight, there’s a permanent afterhours vibe. The room lends itself more to convivial dinners than intimate ones, and the later hours (until midnight on Friday and Saturday) recommend it as a French Quarter stop after the show.
It would be a mistake to come here expecting the old Meauxbar, though it’s easy to see why people might since the name hasn’t changed and the exterior looks the same. But that misapprehension can’t survive a dinner. The chef is working a highly distinctive style of her own, and that’s what really puts a place on the map.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.
942 N. Rampart St., (504) 569 9979; meauxbar.com
Dinner nightly, late night Friday and Saturday