When asked to conjure in their minds the image of a talented New Orleans chef at his comfortable but sleek new restaurant, I imagine many folks would think of a stately figure in a starched white chef jacket, buttoned to the top, his name elegantly embroidered over the chest pocket and its sleeves neatly rolled, perhaps even wearing a tall, classic French toque.
Chef Chris DeBarr, a Big Easy culinary veteran who recently opened Serendipity in Mid-City, doesn’t quite fit that paradigm. Sartorially, the easygoing chef has more in common with The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” than with Paul Bocuse, or even Emeril Lagasse, favoring a well-loved Saints T-shirt over the traditional cook’s wardrobe.
“Well, I’m an old renegade hippie, you know how it is,” DeBarr said, smiling.
That appearance of laissez faire carries over to the chef’s well thought out and playfully executed menu in all the best ways.
In a city filled with staunchly defended culinary traditions, DeBarr has proudly beaten a separate path, forging an eclectic, worldly menu that still keeps New Orleans in its heart.
“We do what I call ‘psychedelic soul food,’ ” Chris said. “A lot of it has street food origins, and we do a lot of reinterpretation of classics, or things that people commonly eat in many other places, but we want to put our New Orleans spin on it and try to make it elevated and memorable.
“It shows our flair. New Orleanians are showy people — we wear beads and feathers, and we’re very friendly, outgoing people, and we don’t like to present the ordinary.
“And I don’t want to present anything ‘ordinary’ on my menu. I want it to be fun, interesting, and peel you back a little, make you appreciate every spoonful, every forkful, every little bit of flavor.”
A recent visit to Serendipity began with a dish that DeBarr has been perfecting for some time, and which readily displays his playful nature: “shrimp wearing a grass skirt,” a reinterpretation of classic Creole barbecue shrimp.
“I take big, beautiful Gulf shrimp wrapped in kataifi (shredded philo dough), rubbed with Creole spices, then roasted. Then, we do a typical New Orleans barbecue shrimp sauce — butter, rosemary, garlic, Worcestershire, all that. Because the kataifi soaks up the butter so well, we don’t have to use as much, and it results in a much lighter dish.”
DeBarr drew inspiration for the dish from the famous writer Lafcadio Hearn, who had Greek roots, and who wrote lovingly about New Orleans and its cuisine.
“I wanted to tip my hat to him by incorporating some Mediterranean elements, but also serving it with a coconut and pineapple slaw, because of the tiki history of this city — to lend it a bit of that exoticism.”
Co-owner Ed Diaz —who also owns the popular downtown spot Bar Tonique — pairs some of his signature cocktails with the chef’s creative cuisine, including his version of a classic punch.
“Our punch program isn’t like anywhere else, in that we don’t batch large quantities of punch and put it in a punchbowl, which is how it’s traditionally done. I deconstructed the punch by using an oleo sacchrum — a syrup made from sugar that’s been rubbed with lemon rinds — as the base for our punch, so we’re able to make it fresh every time and still have that consistent quality.”
Diaz’s other concoctions include a delightful pisco sour, as well as gin mixed with hand-made tonic water that Diaz batches himself, a process that took him years to perfect, an effort which has payed off handsomely.
A second dish was another of DeBarr’s reinterpretations, this time of a “peacemaker” po-boy, which traditionally features fried oysters, bacon and cheese. His “Oysters Delacroix” incorporates oysters braised in a horseradish cream sauce, Neuske’s applewood-smoked bacon, and butter-braised romaine lettuce on top of a Dong Phong bakery roll. The horseradish cream provided an earthy, vegetal feel to the dish.
“When you poach the horseradish down,” said the chef, “you get that great flavor, but not the bite. It’s not as harsh.”
The dish that followed was a surprise to my inner carnivore: A “cauliflower steak, roasted and served with kasha, just a whisper of gouda, and a red beet fennel puree.” DeBarr also incorporates a helping of greens — mustard, kale and turnip — that come from the chef’s own backyard.
“It’s an idea that I had for awhile,” DeBarr said. “I wanted to showcase our vegetarian chops, even though we have a lot of meat on our menu. I’m a Southern boy — I love my pig — but we love our vegetables, too. We’re not trying to ‘preach to the choir,’ and go out of our way to win over vegans. But we also want everybody to be happy, to feel like they’re invited to the party.”
Dinner concluded with DeBarr’s homage to the beloved and much-missed Hubig’s pie. A buttery, flaky fried pastry packed with a ricotta bananas foster filling and a spiced, buttered rum sauce does more than just salute a New Orleans favorite.
When pressed for plans for his psychedelic culinary showmanship, DeBarr smiled, but wouldn’t show his hand. “We’re just trying to have fun,” he said, “and keep a little of that black magic going. That’s what Serendipity is all about.”