What's a New Orleans diner supposed to think when presented with a restaurant inspired by hip-hop and skateboarding? How will that translate to the plate, and will this place feel like a restaurant, a music video or a skate park?
Sure enough "the essence of 90s rap, skateboarding, and hip-hop culture" informs the official origin story for Warbucks, which opens Saturday.
Certainly, New Orleans has had reasons to wonder about it.
Warbucks holds down a high-profile location, formerly home to Amici and for many years a Byblos location. It was developed by BRG Hospitality, the company still mostly known as the one John Besh started. Its restaurants range widely, and most are hits. This is the first to open in New Orleans after a shake-up following a sexual harassment scandal that broke last year.
Warbucks is also the first restaurant from Todd Pulsinelli, who for five years led the kitchen at Restaurant August, one of the city’s finest and most ambitious. He and his wife Elizabeth are partners in the new restaurant.
But as the final pieces came together for Warbucks, it hardly feels as unconventional as the rap and skate tags make it sound.
For the concept, Pulsinelli simply did what many chefs say they do in the pursuit of authenticity – he focused on what he loved. Instead of grandma’s cooking or Old World roots, he had different source material to channel.
“The inspiration is what I’m passionate about, and that’s hip-hop and skateboarding,” said Pulsinelli. “The idea is to be a fun, casual place with no pretense whatsoever.”
Left field, but field tested
“Warbucks” is the chef’s nom de mic, his alter ego persona for the ribald rap songs he writes on the side (you can get a taste on iTunes).
This plays out in Warbucks the restaurant more gently than in Warbucks the rapper’s lyrics.
Maybe the bar top brings to mind stacked stakeboard decks, and maybe the art motif (by illustrator Thom Lessner) has a comic-punk look. A big piece up front of a kid wearing a gold chain and a grimace is a portrait of the Pulsinellis’ six-year-old son, Hank.
The chef describes Warbucks' food as modern American, with accessible ideas "lifted" with fine dining techniques. He has field tested some of these dishes over the span of several years, including at periodic pop-ups with his friends at Turkey & Wolf.
Others already have restaurant track records. Octopus and red beans sounds outrageous, but the version Pulsinelli was serving at August last spring seemed right at home on its lux, contemporary menu. The sliced octopus was tender and smoky, the mellow red beans beneath gave it heft and balance. It worked like a modern Spanish tapa.
The Warbucks menu (see below) is designed to be playful. What look like onion rings are made from chopped shrimp and shrimp mousse. Tater tots are stuffed with oxtail beef. Pork ribs are double cut, but served with one bone removed, leaving a rib straw attached to a rib.
Pulsinelli said he wants Warbucks' food to be served quick and at an approachable price range (the menu tops out at $20). That means packing in the culinary technique on the back-end, as with cheese tortelli (extra big tortellini) with lamb ragu, or the lacquered pork belly on shiso leaves.
The kitchen makes its own hot dogs, from Wagyu beef, dressed with crab fat coleslaw and chips. There are two burgers. The one dubbed “this burger” is kind of fancy, a double stack with red onions cooked down with red wine and foie gras butter. The other (“that burger”) isn't fancy at all.
The space was revamped by local firm Farouki Farouki, known for its creative work with restaurants. It feels like a bright, modern brasserie, with a mirror-lined banquette, partitions of plants and artful touches.
An installation over the bar looks like a video game animation of brick come to life, setting off the old building's actual exposed masonry. There are distinct areas for small tables, communal tables and lounge tables. Simply painting the pressed tin ceiling white helped make the room pop again.
The bar has frozen drinks and wine on tap, and keeps the beer to bottles and cans.
Elizabeth Pulsinelli said they wanted every part of the restaurant to feel inviting and casual. To stay on track, she said, they kept going back to the chef's own interests, his downtime pursuits, his attitude. That's their anchor for creating a new restaurant they hope will feel real.
“When people come in here, it will feel like Todd,” she said.
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