When chef/owner Nina Compton’s Bywater American Bistro opened in spring, it had a tough act to follow. Compton had drawn widespread praise at Compere Lapin, the Warehouse District restaurant where she thoughtfully melds her Caribbean heritage, mastery of Italian cooking and fine-dining finesse. She was named Best Chef: South by the James Beard Foundation in May.
Her new restaurant straddles the line between neighborhood bistro and upscale establishment with creative dishes that combine local ingredients and refined techniques.
Bywater American Bistro took over the space formerly occupied by Mariza. The remodeled restaurant has Prussian blue accents, exposed brick and chandeliers, creating an industrial chic setting that’s intimate and bustling at the same time. On busy nights, the restaurant buzzes with energy and can get very loud. Servers weave their way through high-top tables and banquettes, past corner booths and into a semi-private dining space available for larger groups.
For their sophomore effort, Compton and her husband Larry Miller partnered with Compere Lapin sous chef Levi Raines, who helms the kitchen here. Raines describes the menu as ingredient-driven American cooking, and many dishes are amalgamations of influences and techniques.
Tuna toast takes a dish that’s become ubiquitous and comes back swinging. Bellegarde Bakery’s Graison Gill consulted on the recipe for the bread, a dense and fine-crumbed loaf made with freshly milled white wheat from Kansas and heirloom cornmeal that imparts a slight tang. A raw garlic oil and tomato jam adds a twist on the Spanish pan con tomate and avocado puree supplies a buttery base. Tuna loin treated to a traditional bresaola cure is frozen and sliced super thin so that the delicate, almost translucent, pink slices are akin to aged ham.
The menu makes a nod to the Italian practice of mid-courses with a selection of “Rice, Grains, Noodles” that includes the addictively good smoked ricotta agnolotti, which have been offered in several iterations since opening. The most recent version is perhaps the lightest, with roasted shiitake mushrooms and just barely sautéed chanterelles and peas, charred pickled pearl onions and a dashi made from shiitake stems, kombu and scallions.
Anyone could have predicted that Compère Lapin would be popular when it opened in 2015, at least in the beginning. Its chef, Nina Compton, was…
Dishes featuring food from the Gulf South often deliver impressively nuanced results. Blue crab dip parts with the remoulade-heavy version by lightening the dish with a vinegar cream in place of mayonnaise. The crab is dressed lightly in olive oil and a housemade mustard powder adds tang. A simple preparation of steamed snapper with broccoli rabe is served with a silky, jerk spiced Crystal hollandaise that’s lighter than air and a reminder of just how good the classic sauce can be.
A gazpacho highlights the restaurant’s flair for interesting flavor combinations. The cold soup is re-imagined and finished tableside with tomatillos poured over crunchy charred croutons and topped with a light buttermilk sorbet. Thick sliced pork belly is balanced by the bright and almost sour combination of juniper, apples and wild rice. Compton’s influence seems particularly strong in an excellent rabbit curry, a simple, warming dish served with jasmine rice, pecans and cilantro.
Raines and Compton’s backgrounds serve as connecting threads throughout the menu, which is like a story that still is unfolding. It tells us about who they are as chefs, but also about who we are as diners right now.
Bywater American Bistro
2900 Chartres St., (504) 605-3827; www.bywateramericanbistro.com
dinner Wed.-Sun., brunch Sat.-Sun.
tuna toast, smoked ricotta agnolotti, rabbit curry
Bywater restaurant takes a creative approach with local ingredients and fine-tuned techniques