In their sophomore effort, chefs Michael Stoltzfus and Kristen Essig, owners of Coquette, have created a friendly neighborhood spot in the Lower Garden District that treats guests of all ages like family. That's Thalia.
A green door facing the corner of Constance and Thalia streets opens into a dining room warmed by buttery yellow walls and folk art, including a tall alligator painted by local artist Devin De Wulf. An L-shaped bar separates the dining tables from an open kitchen, allowing customers to watch the work of Essig and co-sous chefs Ana Castro and Sean Poole. Vintage-inspired glassware and cutlery add to the homey feeling.
The menu is a blend of inspirations: Southern, as in barbecued shrimp flavored with Coca-Cola, rosemary and peanuts; Italian, in house-made pasta dishes; and a mix of elements including schnitzel and cornmeal naan with labneh. It holds together, though, because it’s all extraordinarily well done.
For starters, slivers of muscadine crown a bowl of creamy burrata and vivid pistou that requires no bread, just a spoon. An artichoke is stuffed with a crusty, browned mix of heirloom tomatoes, breadcrumbs and butter. One evening’s special salad featured an autumnal blend of mixed greens, roasted squash, walnuts and country ham with brown butter vinaigrette. Small plates range from $4 to $14.
Among the entrees, the yakamein offered generous portions of sliced eye of round, Gulf shrimp and handmade scallion ash tagliatelle in a richly flavored broth. A side of chili sauce allows diners to customize the heat level. Roasted chicken was executed perfectly, with crisp skin and juicy meat over a pool of creamy mustard sauce.
Pastas are uniformly outstanding and offered in two sizes. Gemelli with a Bolognese of beef, pork and chicken is served simply, accented by dollops of fresh ricotta. Chicken sausage with rigatoni gets a seasonal treatment with pumpkin, shiso and a shower of thinly shaved cheese that melts over the pile.
Thalia offers “rituals,” or recurring weekly specials, each night the restaurant is open. Tuesday is schnitzel, which one week featured a crisply breaded portion with pumpkin gravy and a side of smoky greens. Thursday brings baked pasta, which appeared in a cast-iron skillet of macaroni topped with red gravy and gooey, browned mozzarella. Entrees are between $14 and $21.
Desserts are simple but interesting. A china teacup of chocolate custard is topped with Chantilly cream and a sprinkle of pistachios, and floating islands of meringue are served over creme anglaise with salted caramel sauce and sliced almonds. A special dessert of whipped mascarpone, coffee granita and lemon curd offered a tasty take on tiramisu.
A quirky cocktail list includes a Lei Low with manzanilla, PX, orgeat and mint. The wine selection is as far-reaching and well-considered as the menu, featuring several intriguing choices by the glass.
Service is friendly, knowledgeable and unhurried, although it is slow at times. The dining room is small and gets noisy, and the restaurant does not accept reservations.
Thalia strives to be child-friendly, with a kid’s plate available for $8, and restrooms that feature children’s drawings and changing tables.
Any neighborhood would be lucky to have a restaurant producing this level of creative, approachable cooking. Dinner at Thalia could become a weekly ritual all its own.