What happens when the local anarchist buys a minivan?
We’ve written before about Green Goddess, the extremely eclectic French Quarter restaurant located just across Exchange Alley from the staid Pelican Club, a juxtaposition much like a parked hippie-filled VW Microbus on Audubon Place. Chris Debarr’s intimate love child has been on the short list of most unusual NOLA dining options since its opening, an exuberant not-for-everyone grab bag of ingredients many of which you’ve not only never considered combining, but in many cases didn’t even know existed.
Well the enfant terrible of the French Quarter has grown up and gone all mainstream.
Six weeks ago, DeBarr opened Serendipity in the American Can building on Orleans Avenue, eschewing the legendarily cramped dining area and kitchen of The Goddess for some decidedly more spacious and upscale digs, complete with parking. We had a first look last night.
The first hint that Chris may have traded his tie-dye at the crossroads for a little establishment street-cred came in the person of maitre’d Ralph Shumaker, who greeted us like we were the King and Queen of England, or at least English Turn, as we entered.
Maitre’d? Seriously? We were squired to our 2-top in more than a little disbelief as we reflected upon the occasion at Green Goddess when we waited more than 20 minutes to settle up because no one could find ‘the check guy.’
The times, they are a changin’ indeed.
The space is more than a little appealing. Chris and his partners have done a terrific job smoothing over what can be a bit of an industrial feel in American Can, resulting in a dimly lit, cozy, white-tablecloth enclave heavy on romance and notably light on Weather Underground and Jack Kerouac. There’s a long beautiful bar made even more interesting by what’s behind it, and we’ll get to that in a bit.
The menu is, well, pure Chris DeBarr, and conclusive evidence that all jokes aside, there’s not much mainstream about the food here. If adventure’s your thing, this is the place for you. You just will not find a more unusual and inventive menu in New Orleans (or most other places for that matter). At the moment, several items from the Goddess reprise themselves on the menu here, including Shrimp in a Grass Skirt and Spooky Blue Corn Crepes made with Aztec fungus.
We began with fried green olives stuffed with alligator sausage and pecorino cheese and the trio of bruschettas, a diverse set including edamame with Japanese chili paste, coffee marinated flank steak with arugula, and anchovies with piquillo peppers. And we followed with the Red Curry Goat Empanada, which included duck fat fried rutabegas and carmelized parsnips, and the Banh Xheo, a Vietnamese crepe with crabmeat substituting for the more traditional shrimp.
As the descriptions above suggest, this is not the venue for your picky eater. What we’ve said about the food at Green Goddess also applies here: working without a net risks the occasional fall. DeBarr’s dishes will sometimes miss, but they often soar, and they are never boring. Serendipity is not a study in relentless precision and control, but rather a celebration of what happens when the inmates run the asylum, and Chris is the master of ceremonies. When you stop in, you’re pretty likely to find him at your table chatting you up. Asking him the slightest question about the food or the wine reveals a guy who is just passionately involved in what he is doing. His excitement is infectious, and Serendipity could be no other restaurant but his.
And now, about that bar again. One of DeBarr’s partners in Serendipity is Ed Diaz, owner of Bar Tonique on Rampart in the Quarter. Tonique is among our favorite places, and one of the very best destinations in town for carefully crafted old-school cocktails with obsessive attention to ingredients. It appears that virtually the entire Tonique cocktail menu and approach have been exported to Serendipity, and that is a very good thing. This is a place to go for an Old Fashioned if you’d like to decide if you want it classic or modern, or to grab a Corpse Reviver, an Aviator, or a Ramos Gin Fizz, just to name a few. Tonique can feel like a smoky den of iniquity at times, and Serendipity gives the opportunity to satisfy your cocktail jones in a more refined (and smoke-free) atmosphere. Chris tells us that Serendipity will soon be open till midnight with an eye toward developing the bar as a destination in its own right. Let me tell you, this is a bar you want to visit.
Green Goddess was the Grateful Dead; Serendipity is Miles Davis. DeBarr and company look to round off the rough edges while preserving an ebullient approach to food that makes you wonder why others don’t take more chances. It’s early in the game, but it looks like they’re off to a good start. Find some adventurous friends and put this place on your list.