Some diners might have memories of the lavish, multi-course extravaganzas served at Square Root, the tasting menu-only restaurant that for several years occupied the corner building at 1800 Magazine St. Gris Gris, a very different type of restaurant, opened in the space in early summer, and now there isn’t a foam, a gel or liquid nitrogen-subjected ingredient in sight.
Instead, chef and owner Eric Cook has delved into the culinary archive of Louisiana and New Orleans, imparting creative twists and turns that local diners know very well. Many diners already may know Cook, as the chef’s resume includes Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace and most recently, Tommy’s Cuisine. Those unfamiliar with Cook can get to know him quickly by pulling up a chair at the downstairs “Chef’s Table,” a large bar anchoring the two-story space where Cook and his team hold court.
Fried oysters are the focus in a playful take on the BLT with planks of smoked pork belly and a juicy tomato jelly that carries a peppery kick. A daily gumbo plays it closer to home cooking and arrives the color of milk chocolate, bobbing with tender chicken and smoked sausage, and carrying a mild heat that builds slowly and lingers with each bite.
Pork belly slow-braised in Barq's root beer and served with a jalapeno demi-glace arrives with scored caramel-colored skin that gives way to deeply smoky and fatty layers of pork. The dish is plated atop a crimson wedge of compressed watermelon that lends an acidic counter to the heavier elements on the plate.
A gussied-up version of chicken gizzard grillades is cooked sous vide for 24 hours, leaving the gizzards almost silky, without any of the characteristic gamey or iron notes diners might expect. They are served on a crispy grit cake draped in an umami-rich brown gravy thick with caramelized onions. It may not be the most visually appealing of dishes, but it is one of the most comforting.
Regional mainstays like shrimp and grits get dialed up a few notches with the addition of cherry tomatoes, which impart welcome acidity. Thick coins of sausage lend a smoky hint, and the stone-ground grits are creamy and almost puddinglike — a decadent canvas for a revamped classic that hits all the right notes.
Seared duck breast is perfectly cooked and served fanned out above a mound of roasted sweet potato and pecan souffle. On one visit, the duck had lacquered, perfectly crispy skin with a Steen's sugarcane molassas jus and was tender and flavorful, but the souffle was too sweet and seemed at odds with the otherwise well-balanced dish.
Whether dining downstairs, where the kitchen theater unfolds, or the buzzing upstairs bar and wraparound balcony, the essence of this restaurant lies in its social and familial atmosphere. Dining at Gris Gris feels most appropriate for a night when it’s home cooking you want, but in the company of others.