On busy afternoons this fall, Michael Gulotta and his chefs turned a circuit of Mid-City restaurant kitchens into something like an international food bazaar crossed with an R&D lab.
They were devising the menu for Maypop, the new restaurant that opened this week in the CBD, and they were working on borrowed time between service at MoPho, Gulotta’s southeast Asian-inspired restaurant, and at Tana, his Italian eatery.
At each stop, the chefs talked the talk of the Asian grocery, the Italian table, a Cajun smokehouse and French culinary school, sometimes all within a single recipe.
They unpacked crates of andouille and hamhock dashi, big jars of uni butter, coiled noodles of different colors, passion fruit vinaigrette, cilantro gremolata and apple gastrique. They got to work for fast-paced sessions at the wok and sauce pan, got feedback, then boxed it all up again and got out.
This roving process was a product of practical necessity for chefs who were running restaurants while developing a new one, but it also felt in synch with the spirit of Maypop.
Their new venture is a step up from MoPho and Tana, which are each as casual as taverns. But at the same time, Maypop draws elements from both and combines them for a journey through some culinary terra incognita.
“Our challenge here is to take some of what we’re already doing, elevate it to a higher level and bring in all these other things we love,” said Gulotta.
The result are dishes like a highly-spiced pumpkin mash topped with charcuterie that carries the flavors of Vietnamese pho, with crusty roti bread to scoop it all up. Another dish started out like moo shu duck and evolved into a luscious terrine with the flavors of country gumbo, a backbeat of hoisin sauce and a crunchy crown of papaya salad.
By comparison, the oyster buccatini sounds clear-cut, like something your uncle Joe brings around for football night. For the Maypop version, though, the springy noodles and plump oysters are sluiced in coconut milk, and there’s a top ridge of pangritata, a fragrant, toasty Italian style breadcrumb that, in this case, is imbued with the briny flavor of dried shrimp.
Next steps, new path
MoPho arrived with a similarly enigmatic allure when it opened early in 2014, recasting staples from the Vietnamese noodle shop with a modern culinary style and broader range of flavors. In short order, though, MoPho’s casual, family-friendly ambiance made it into a neighborhood restaurant. It’s an anytime place for those times when the shrimp platter or the chicken parm isn’t quite calling you.
That also means it’s harder for MoPho to change, since regulars want their standbys. Maypop will open more possibilities for the approach that Gulotta and his chefs have been pursuing.
“This is more of an open-ended MoPho, something that can change all the time,” said Jeff Gulotta, the chef’s brother and business partner.
The Gulotta brothers and their high school friend Jeffrey Bybee have been doing things differently since the three set out on their own. Michael Gulotta was previously chef de cuisine at Restaurant August, the lux John Besh flagship, where his brother was a manager and Bybee worked front of the house. Their own restaurants can show some of the culinary polish of the high-end, but without the upscale amenities.
They’ve taken some unconventional steps to expand from MoPho, building their staff and capacity with the bar kitchens at Tana (inside the lounge Trèo) and Rum & the Lash (a kitchen window inside Finn McCool's Irish Pub), rather than stand-alone additions. Their small restaurant group got a big boost this year when Food + Wine named Michael Gulotta to its annual list of best new chefs.
Maypop is their most ambitious undertaking, and it will likely to be their most high profile with the location set amid a swirl of new development and many new restaurants in the CBD.
Maypop is in the corner address of the Paramount apartment building that was previously Ursa Major. That restaurant opened last year with an intricate zodiac theme and a ticketed reservation system, but it proved star-crossed, closing in just six months.
Maypop is starting fresh here, with its own design across the large window-lined space. The centerpiece is a clever accordion-style mural of river deltas — look at it from one angle and it shows the Mississippi, from the other it's the Mekong in Vietnam.
Its cuisine is the collaboration of Gulotta and his lieutenants, including Maypop chef de cuisine Will “Trey” Smith, joined here by sous chefs Nick Stackeni and Adam Bean, and MoPho chef de cuisine Paul Chell.
Some ideas started by reconfiguring an existing dish along different lines, others with a single ingredient the chefs wanted to use. One new Maypop dish started because Smith had made pasta with a red bean flour at Tana.
“What goes with red beans? Andouille. So we cooked down this andouille Bolognese,” said Smith.
The pasta is paccheri — tender, tube-shaped noodles. Fermented black beans are interspersed through the hearty meat sauce. Charred bitter rapini and dill finish it off.
Their menu has cured flounder served with a vividly flavorful vinaigrette made from the namesake maypop (the wild vine with such complex passion flower blossoms). There's pompano with crisped skin in a ruby red grapefruit curry that tastes both fresh and soothing, and tarts filled with a mix of pork trotters and winter squash.
These may not sound like dishes to automatically press comfort food buttons, and they don’t follow the path of proven favorites. Maypop is meant to be something different. But for Gulotta the goal is still clear.
“It’s balance,” he said, without a pause. “It’s something that works, something that finishes with you saying I want to come back and get that again.”
611 O’Keefe Ave., 504-482-6845
Lunch and dinner daily.
Appetizers $10-$15, entrees $13-$32
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