Try defining an American restaurant, and things get nebulous pretty quick. It can mean much different things in different contexts.
But for Sean Josephs, a partner in the strikingly handsome Uptown restaurant Kenton’s (5757 Magazine St., 504-891-1177), one particular guidepost is definitive: bourbon.
“That’s part of why we have a bourbon focus here. Nothing is more American than that, and it led us to building the restaurant around it,” said Josephs.
At Kenton’s, that plays out from a deep collection of bourbon glowing behind the bar like an amber panel and from a menu spiked here and there with whiskey and more generally guided by an affinity for its flavors.
If some of the dishes sound Creole (grilled pompano, crab toast) and many others sound rustic Southern (poached shrimp in buttermilk, braised pork with butter beans, smoked steak), chef Kyle Knall said that’s a recognition of both the local bounty and the prominent influence of the South on modern American cuisine.
“When people think of American food, I want them to think of food like this,” said Knall, an alum of Frank Stitt’s restaurants in his native Birmingham and the acclaimed Gramercy Tavern in New York.
Knall and Josephs have pulled this off before. The two are partners in Maysville, an upscale New York City restaurant that shares some DNA, much of the bourbon list and a few dishes with Kenton’s (namely the roasted oysters, smoldered with bourbon-soaked hay).
But their New Orleans restaurant is a different sort of project, with a different aim and a new partner. That’s Mani Dawes, Josephs’ wife and proprietress of her own New York restaurant, the tapas bar Tia Pol.
Kenton’s is the couple’s first restaurant together, and also an acknowledgement of the magnetic power that New Orleans has over its natives.
Dawes grew up nearby. Her mother lives around the corner from the new restaurant. And now Dawes, Josephs and their children live two blocks away as well, while continuing to manage their New York restaurants from their new home. She describes it as a long-awaited homecoming.
“It’s thrilling, exciting and a little terrifying all at once,” she said. “I always knew we would come home, and this has been a fantasy for a long time, something we always wondered how we would make work. Now, just opening the doors and being able to tell people ‘welcome’ feels really great.”
Building from Bourbon
The restaurant took shape in a newly constructed building that replaced a cluster of cottages at the corner of Magazine and Nashville streets. Starting with a blank slate, their design reflects a hope that Kenton’s will serve as a neighborhood restaurant, albeit an upscale one, with different perches for a drink and a snack, a casual lunch or a big dinner.
There’s an oyster bar, its top surface encased in brass. The marble-topped main bar sports a pair of TVs that can show big games if the vibe if right, but also disappear behind mirrors when not in use. There’s a second dining room built to the narrow contours of an old shotgun house, right down to light apertures staked out where chimneys might have stood.
“There are lots of different ideas of a neighborhood restaurant, and this is our idea for it,” said Josephs. “We hope people will come here from other parts of town, but I think serving the community around you is super important.”
The dining room is arrayed with padded green booths and banquettes. Dividing them from the bar is a series of translucent screens across which is a mural of an old river scene, drawn in graphite by Dawes’ mother, the artist Nancy Dawes.
This restaurant exudes a personal touch, which continues to the bar. Among the 150 or so whiskeys are selections from Josephs’ own label. The brand is called Pinhook, a horseman’s term for the speculative buying of young thoroughbreds. Each release from the brand is named for an active thoroughbred on the racing circuit, which were raised by Josephs’ partners in the whiskey venture (Bourbon Courage was the first release, followed by Bourbonize).
Even the name Kenton’s relates to its bourbon fixation. It’s a reference to Simon Kenton, a frontiersman and a founder of Maysville, Kentucky. This riverfront town became an early hub for bourbon production, and New Orleans was a leading destination for it. The town was also a major producer of wrought iron, much of which went downriver to decorate 19th century New Orleans buildings.
To begin, Kenton’s serves dinner daily and brunch Saturday and Sunday. Hours are slated to expand for lunch and breakfast service in the weeks ahead.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.