HEAVY ON WHISKEY, SHORT ON PRETENSION AND IN THE MIDST OF TOURISTY NEW ORLEANS, SYLVAIN RISES ABOVE EXPECTATION
There simply is not an adequate enough word in the English language to describe how badly I hate the word “gastropub.” I hate the way it sounds in my head, tumbling off my tongue, and especially spewing forth from mouths of “foodies.” (Another word which its utterance I can only hope will soon be punishable by a very slow and dreadfully painful death—or, to be less extreme, at least punishable by the withholding of a decent meal until a different, more palatable moniker can be conjured.) But gastropub is a word it seems no one can escape using when it comes to discussing New Orleans’ four-year-old culinary rebel Sylvain, nestled just around the pancreas of the French Quarter.
Initially conceived as a comfortable, whiskey-strong cocktail bar with good enough food to prop the whole venture on an elbow, Sylvain took a hard turn right with the hiring of opening chef and native Alabaman Alex Harrell. After having cut his teeth with Susan Spicer at Bayona and honing his skills under the tutelage of French Quarter stalwart Gerard Maras, Harrell wandered off to Charleston before being called back to NOLA and being immediately hired to helm one of the more daring and inventive concepts to hit the Quarter since Katrina.
Initial local reaction was cold, to put it mildly, according to Harrell. “People told us we wouldn’t make it,” he says, “but we stuck to it and people kept coming.” And that they did, including a visit just a month after opening from Josh Ozersky, who, writing for Time said,
“Restaurants in tourist areas are rarely any better than they have to be, which is to say not great. But Sylvain really tries, and the effort pays off. The thing that struck me was the minimalism, previously a rare commodity in New Orleans.”
Sylvain made their mark with simple dishes, brimming with Southern sensibility, which may not sound like a very big deal, but in New Orleans, people do not consider themselves Southern at all and their food certainly is not. Sylvain has arguably introduced the Crescent City to Southern comfort food and done so in one of the most wonderfully warm, womblike, dark, mysterious whiskey bars on the planet.
Sylvain’s existence is testament to the lasting credibility of comfort food. Inasmuch as lighter-caliber fare may be eschewed for loftier ambition, the reality is that much of what you will find in the French Quarter is garbage and that expertly crafted minimalist “pub” food can and does stand shoulder to shoulder with all of the city’s recent additions.
The future is in new hands. Harrell has moved on to open his own place, and Martha Wiggins, his longtime number two, is in the wheelhouse. Wiggins, whose father is African-American and who is originally from Alabama, says she will continue to rely on that channeled family influence to carry on the food program at Sylvain. “The place is a scene, ya know? I mean it’s loud at night and people get live,” says Wiggins. “I just want people to come and have a whole experience that makes them feel something…something that makes them feel happy.”
This, to my best understanding, is the essence of comfort food. It connects you to a place in time that is familiar, safe, and happy. That is exactly what Sylvain delivers…revelry with a knife and fork.
They have etched their name in the mortar that is the French Quarter food scene. Wedge yourself among the guests knowing that a table eventually will come and joy comes with it. Rest assured that convivial owner/P.T. Barnum/whiskey wizard Sean McCusker will make the wait entirely worthwhile with his unerring hospitality. Simply put, Sylvain sticks the landing every time.
CHEF HARRELL’S RECIPES
Chili Roasted Almonds
Black-eyed Pea Cakes with Kale Salad and Mushroom Vinaigrette
Braised Beef Cheeks with Potato Puree, Sweet Onions, and Field Peas
Duck Confit with Stewed White Beans and Bourbon Mustard
Rustic Chicken with Potatoes, Olives, and Prunes
Shrimp and Clam Stew in Tomato-Fennel Broth
Slow-Braised Collard Greens
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