Balise, the new restaurant from husband-and-wife team Justin Devillier and Mia Freiberger-Devillier, is less elegant than its acclaimed Uptown sister, La Petite Grocery, and it provides refined Southern fare in a casual, tavern-like atmosphere.
The setting is a historic Creole townhouse on the corner of Carondelet and Girod streets, formerly occupied by Ditcharo's. The renovated space has a seafaring, maritime feel and its name pays homage to the first French settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The front room features a long marble bar, dark wood details and a handful of tables, and there's a smaller back dining room lined with black leather banquettes. Upstairs, a larger dining room tends to get very loud. If the downstairs room feels intimate and reserved, the upstairs is downright boisterous. A long wraparound balcony provides a more romantic setting, weather permitting.
The restaurant's attention to detail touches everything from small shared plates to a list of expertly crafted cocktails. One can make a night of it here over cocktails and bar snacks as easily as with a full meal.
Pickled quail eggs come three to an order and are delicious but provide little more than a taste. Served in diminutive mason jars with sweet-and-spicy hot sauce, the briny orbs give way to creamy, velvety yolks.
Blistered shishito peppers are topped with rich, bacon breadcrumbs and soft cream cheese. It's an indulgent bar snack best shared with at least one other person, if not two or three.
On the menu's garde manger, or cold plates section, vegetables — often considered lagniappe or an afterthought — are given the attention they deserve. Long-stemmed broccoli comes with Piave Vecchio, an Italian cow's milk cheese and sauce gribiche. Beets are tossed with mixed lettuces, Spanish goat cheese, pickled berries and pistachios, and Brussels sprouts get a Southeast Asian treatment with the addition of fish sauce, chilies and peanuts.
Some vegetable dishes fare better than others. A medley of pickled heirloom cucumbers comes nestled on a bed of Castelvetrano olive tapenade and topped with shavings of mullet bottarga. The flavor and crunch of the cucumbers get lost amid the salinity of the olives and heavy-handed brine.
Venison gets luxury treatment here; tossed with olive oil and lemon; the meat is finely diced and served as a tartare. Instead of being served with toast or crackers, the meat is topped with buttery rye breadcrumbs and finished with small dollops of garlicky dill mayonnaise.
A baked rigatoni dish combines chewy pasta, a dark, velvety ragout of beef cheeks and melted fontina cheese. The tender morsels of beef are cloaked in rich gravy that emits a strong umami flavor and tastes decadent.
Eggplant sits atop silky pine nut puree with notes of coriander, lemon and garlic. The medley serves as the base for tender hunks of roasted cobia, and its golden crust gives way to firm, rich flakes. Charred cucumbers provide a welcome crunch and freshness without stealing the show.
Entrees include crispy-fried drum served atop charred romaine lettuce with peas, capers and burnt lemon and Piave Vecchio dressing.
A cheeseburger is topped with melted cheddar, caramelized onions, bread and butter pickles and "comeback sauce." It's available on the lunch and dinner menus, the former of which is considerably more casual and includes several sandwich and salad options.
The desert list is simple and short and includes sticky toffee pudding with salted pecans and a smoked vanilla ice cream.
Although friendly, service can be a bit harried and could use some finesse. Things don't always go smoothly with reservations or requests relayed between staff.
Despite the occasional hiccup, Devillier's talents shine here. Balise appears poised to usher in a new breed of restaurants, more casual than some Uptown and French Quarter counterparts, and a welcome addition to the neighborhood.