A good back story can get them in the door, but it’s what’s on the plate that brings them back. We knew chef Nina Compton’s new restaurant, Compère Lapin, had the first part down pat even before it opened in June. After all, she won fans across the world for her star turn on “Top Chef” a year earlier. What’s been so exciting and so interesting about her new Warehouse District restaurant, however, is the way Compère Lapin answers the second part of the equation here and now.
This restaurant makes a case that even those jaded to culinary celebrity would be hard pressed to resist, with refreshingly original, readily approachable dishes that really do have something to say.
Compton’s own story starts in the Caribbean, on her native St. Lucia, and her menu at Compère Lapin has many connections to the islands. Some are overt, such as the Spanish-style conch croquetas with mashed, creamy fillings studded with bits of the chewy shellfish. Others are more foundational, like the way her kitchen makes chile pepper spice feel like an expression of affection.
That’s evident in the marinated shrimp, which functions like a composed seafood cocktail bursting with a back beat of vivid jalapeño heat. For the full treatment, get the lunch-only entrée called hot fire chicken. Fried to a craggy crust and thickly painted in a rusty-red sauce giving flavors of paprika, ginger, allspice and cayenne, its flavorful juices carry a lingering, spicy warmth that covers the palate and spreads from there.
While the tropical elements jump out from the menu, some of Compton’s best dishes are more aligned to an Italian culinary sensibility. There’s hamachi crudo, with the raw, lushly buttery-tasting fish slices briskly enhanced by cool planks of compressed melon, the delicately icy crunch of granita and bitter nasturtium petals.
For the roasted fish (drum when I tried it), a fennel sauce whipped into a luscious texture is cut by the herbal, garlicky ripple of pine nut gremolata, while clams give tiny bursts of brine all around. Chicken breast, encased in its crisp skin, is rolled around charred leek ash, which adds seams of deep, salty savor to this tight package. Its sauce, which looked clean and bright, tasted of slow cooking and bone-deep flavor.
These standouts have strong, present flavors with an edge, which is why the curried goat was disappointing. The meat was falling-apart tender but got lost in an unctuous gravy that needed some contrast that the soft flavors of gnocchi, cilantro and crushed cashews didn’t provide.
On the dessert list, pastry chef Danny Alas’ plates share the best attributes of Compton’s menu -- beautiful, substantial and often carrying a tropical connection.
A jar of tres leches cake, very moist, thick but deceptively light-tasting, gets a fourth leche, coconut milk this time. Banana zeppoles taste like fried banana bread stuffed with Nutella, with a whip of the hazelnut chocolate spread extending from top and a liquid, rum-spiked caramel for dipping. A composition of chocolate -- rendered as cake, tight columns of mousse crusted with tuile, ice cream and sauce – is a melodious beat of cocoa goodness dappled with tart passion fruit sauce.
The wine list has interesting selections across the price range; the cocktails are great, well-balanced with a true culinary aspect, novel but not just for their own sake.
The restaurant is part of the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, a rebranding of the former Ambassador Hotel. The design is pretty standard issue urban upscale/casual – exposed brick walls, reclaimed lumber, industrial lights, bare tables, hard acoustics.
There’s a short raw bar, a long main bar, and a coffee shop serving the hotel lobby. The best part of the space is finding the little rabbit figures (from the French lapin) proliferating throughout the room. The worst past is finding your way to the distant restrooms, a pitfall common to restaurants in hotels but an especially circuitous prospect here.
If the restaurant space feels like it could be anywhere, the service usually comes to the rescue, as led by Larry Miller, Compton’s husband and a restaurant industry veteran himself.
Compère Lapin is the hot new thing in town, but it doesn’t act that way. Instead, this restaurant acts like one eager to make new friends.
The bar, even when slammed (which is frequently), still feels civil and welcoming – not always a given when craft cocktails are a calling card. Waiters hand out their own personalized business cards, along with custom postcards printed with house recipes. They’re knowledgeable about the menu, and above all enthusiastic about it and their chef.
It’s easy to see why. The personality and character of this restaurant are as palpable as the pulse of chile peppers and as bright as a splash of citrus.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.