Every restaurant has a backstory somewhere behind the scenes, and the one that brings Briquette and its adjacent, related eatery Opal Basil to downtown New Orleans involves old connections and new beginnings. The cooking at Briquette (701 S. Peters St., 504-302-7496), however, is all out in the open, and seafood is front and center.
The entire glass-enclosed kitchen at this ambitious new Warehouse District restaurant is visible from anywhere in the sprawling dining room.
Look in and you’ll see cobia and redfish and whole snapper arrayed on ice, like selections at the market. You can watch it go on the grill, a multi-layered gas-fired apparatus where different seafood cooks away at various levels. The kitchen stretches on from there, new and gleaming now, like a giant display.
“This kitchen was built to show what we’re doing but also to put a focus on how we do it,” said executive chef Robert Vasquez. “It’s a showcase. When people come here they get to see the life of cooking.”
Briquette, which officially opened Oct. 5, is an upscale, contemporary seafood restaurant. There’s a focus on the Gulf catch, room for steaks and chops, and clear influences from Spanish, Latin and Southwestern cooking but no strict allegiance to any one cuisine.
“You want the story to be how the dish tastes,” Vasquez said.
Dishes he prepared as examples during a recent preview included whole yellowtail snapper, short ribs with risotto, strip steak crowned by blue cheese chunks and fried oysters and the “creaux-nut,” an eye-popping dessert that pairs a croissant with fried foie gras and fresh fruit.
Just next door, Opal Basil was slated to open Oct. 11. It's a more casual eatery, and one designed to change roles as the day progresses. It will serve breakfast and lunch to start; in the evening it will become a wine bar for tapas; and throughout there will be a grab-and-go section for take-away meals, aimed at apartment-dwellers and hotel guest in the surrounding neighborhood.
Replanted across the lake
The name Opal Basil may be familiar from its years on the north shore. That’s where Robert and Lindsey Jo Vasquez developed their original Opal Basil on the Trace and their Vive Café, a pair of upstairs/downstairs eateries under the same roof in Mandeville.
For the new Warehouse District restaurants, they’ve worked with local restaurateurs Anna and Anthony Tusa. In fact, Robert Vasquez, a native of Arizona, first arrived in New Orleans back in 2001 when Anthony Tusa recruited him for a restaurant he was planning. That project never materialized, but Tusa and the chef kept in touch. As plans for Briquette emerged Vasquez got the call to collaborate on it. That’s when they decided to move Opal Basil across the lake, and reconfigure its format for the new neighborhood.
Briquette is a distinct shift in style. It's a much more upscale and modern, and together with the new Opal Basil it is lighting up a block of the Warehouse District that has long been quiet.
The 240-seat restaurant anchors the ground floor of a corner building that had spent years in various phases of stop-and-start redevelopment. Now it’s a residential complex called the Refinery, the name a reference to the property’s history as a one-time molasses mill.
Burly cypress beams and bare brick give it a look similar to other Warehouse District buildings of this vintage, though from here Briquette goes more chic, trimming out the space with marble and red bands of accent lighting. Even the communal tables by the long bar have plugs and ports to charge up phones.
“We see it as an extension of a Warehouse District living room,” said Anna Tusa. “People in this neighborhood have these tiny living rooms, so we want to be the extension of their homes.”
Briquette joins other new restaurants nearby vying for a similar role, like Meril, Emeril Lagasse’s take on a chef-led neighborhood-style restaurant, and NOSH, the lounge and eatery in the former Tommy’s Wine Bar. It’s no coincidence they're all here -- the area is also dotted with construction sites as new hotels and residential developments take shape.
A few dishes on Briquette’s opening menu are related to hits from Opal Basil’s north shore days, like the lobster tamale and crispy deviled eggs.
Others alternately show Spanish, Latin and Southwestern flavors, like smoked chili pork tenderloin; redfish pil pil, with a garlicky Basque-style sauce; adobo chicken with tasso corn pudding and broiled sea scallops with green tomato chili salad.
Absinthe is a specialty at the bar, with individual glass fountains brought to the table for a full-service presentations.
Still, the heart of Briquette for Vasquez is that grill, framed through the kitchen windows and lined with fish. His opening menu runs through six varieties served whole, as steaks or fillets or “on the half shell” (skin on).
“It’s like painting on a canvas with seafood,” Vasquez said, turning a skewered snapper, gazing down at the grill and looking very eager to show what he can do here.
701 S. Peters St., 504-302-7496
719 S. Peters St. (slated to open Oct. 11)
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