Anyone could have predicted that Compère Lapin would be popular when it opened in 2015, at least in the beginning. Its chef, Nina Compton, was new to New Orleans but had earned a national following for her star turn on “Top Chef” just the year before. The buzz around this first restaurant of her own was high.
Less obvious at the time, but more gratifying since, is how Compère Lapin would live up to the hype, work it into something that feels genuine and build its own place in modern New Orleans dining.
Part of the tale is also how Compton and her husband, Larry Miller, have become part of the local restaurant community, not just the restaurant scene. That's not always a given when it comes to high-profile restaurant debuts. But the couple made it clear they were coming here to contribute, not to conquer or kick ass, and their new city has embraced them.
On Thursday, the couple will officially open their second restaurant, Bywater American Bistro.
It’s a bistro for modern American cooking in — you guessed it — the Bywater.
But behind the surprisingly bland name, Bywater American Bistro is the continuation of a remarkable restaurant story, now framed in a different neighborhood, in a more casual setting and with a promising new partnership in play.
At Compère Lapin, Compton blends her own Caribbean roots with Italian and French styles for a refreshingly original, readily approachable cuisine. Together with Miller at the front of the house, they have also asserted a strong sense of character and culture at their restaurant, still not quite 3 years old.
The restaurant is highly regarded around the city, and in the industry. A stint at Compère Lapin has quickly become the kind of gig young chefs highlight on their bios when they’re ready to make their own moves, in the same way they underscore affiliations with, say, Donald Link or Susan Spicer.
That’s one reason Bywater American Bistro came about, too. Compton and Miller developed the new restaurant with Levi Raines, who was their sous chef at Compère Lapin from the start. He’s now a partner, chef and close collaborator in Bywater American Bistro.
“Levi has too much talent. If we didn’t partner with him, we knew he would eventually go somewhere else,” said Compton. “So we wanted to do this together.”
In fact, Compton and Miller were being courted to open a second restaurant early on, and that included some offers outside New Orleans. They wanted to keep it close, however, and they found a place that couldn’t be any closer. The couple lives in an apartment just above their new restaurant, in the Rice Mill Lofts.
It’s in the former home of Mariza, a modern Italian restaurant that became a bustling gathering place for its neighborhood and closed while it was still riding high, as its proprietors sought a change of pace.
Bywater American Bistro keeps the same basic layout of its predecessor, with some notable changes. The kitchen is more open and the bar has expanded, a move aimed to accentuate drop-in, bar-top dining. Banquettes replace Mariza’s communal tables. Blues and reds around the room, bentwood chairs and frosted light fixtures all imply bistro.
On the menu, Compton and Raines treat the modern American concept as an open road for many different flavors.
“When we say American food, for us that’s ingredient-driven food, and it can have a lot of influences,” said Raines.
Instead of a steak, you’re more likely to find duck (with braised red cabbage), a roasted chicken or pork belly with wild rice. There’s a menu section just for grain-based dishes — crab fat rice and farro risotto, jasmine rice with oyster gravy and fried oysters, for instance.
This is a casual restaurant where foie gras still has a place on the charcuterie board.
Compton and Raines direct the Bywater American Bistro menu together, and other alums from Compère Lapin made the move, too. That includes General Manager Michelle Gueydan and Crystal Pavlas, who heads up the bar.
“When we first opened Compère Lapin, people had heard of me but didn’t quite know what to expect,” Compton said when asked about her next restaurant. “This time around we feel the anticipation is a lot higher. People want to see if it will measure up.”
If those expectations feel high, the Compère Lapin crew has only itself to blame for setting the bar there.
2900 Chartres St., 504-605-3827
Dinner Wed.-Sun., 5-10 p.m.
Officially opens March 15
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