Last month we found ourselves in New Orleans for the nation’s largest cocktail festival and biggest drinking event of the year, Tales of the Cocktail. But boozing for four straight days is only one of the reasons we planned a trip to NOLA; the other is to finally visit Top Chef New Orleans runner up and fan favorite, as well as former Scarpetta chef de cuisine and bona fide badass Nina Compton.
After 13 delicious years in Miami — a place the St. Lucia native called home — and as fate would have it, Compton packed her knives and traded one swamp for another after falling in love with New Orleans while filming the Bravo show and realizing this was the city she wanted her first restaurant.
Nestled within the lobby of Old 77 Hotel (named No. 7 Best City Hotels in the US by Travel & Leisure), one might inadvertently walk into Compère Lapin’s modern industrial meets old-world French open space completely unaware of what they’re about to stumble on. Named after a mischievous rabbit from Caribbean and Creole folk tales that Compton read as a kid, Compère Lapin is a trip down the culinary rabbit hole.
Compton has taken her many and vast years of experience under gastronomic legends — French foundation and technique from Daniel Boulud, Italian influence and bravado from Scott Conant, elevated tropical Latin flair from Norman Van Aken — and fused it with her roots and the vibrant and rich creole traditions New Orleans is known for to cook up food that’s traditionally untraditional. There are no tricks. No gimmicks. No overly fancy or trendy ingredients. And most importantly, nothing you’d expect to eat while in NOLA (i.e. beignets, crawfish boil, gumbo), but rather the type of unusually comforting yet complex fare that one constantly craves but can hardly find, anywhere.
Must be the reason why on a Friday at noon there’s a wait time for a table and the 80-foot cocktail and raw bar made from reclaimed pine from other areas of the hotel was completely full (luckily, we had reservations). “Friday lunch in New Orleans is an event (one with cocktails)”, says Larry Miller, Compton’s hubby and front of house maven. And Compère Lapin was indeed the most eventful and memorable dining experience of the entire trip right from bread service, which here comes in the form of heavenly Buttermilk Chive Biscuits with honey butter and bacon butter.
The lunch menu is short and sweet, clocking in at 20 dishes between first, seconds, sides and dessert, and with nothing exceeding $20. Dinner adds in a few more intricacies (like Steak Tartare with pine nut gremolata and a duo of Short Rib and Sirloin supplemented by foie gras shavings) as well as small bites a la Conch Croquettes and crispy dirty rice Arancini.
Our meal started with Charcuterie that would make all other boards jealous (there were head cheese croquettes and dense yet airy foie and chicken liver mousse), and went only up from there. Mouthwatering cold smoked Tuna Tartare with avocado and crispy bananas was a seamless balance of fatty, flesh, and crunch. Shrimp marinated in a robust and bright green roasted jalapeno jus was an explosion of zest and subtle but resilient heat. Scotch Deviled Eggs will never be the same thanks Compton’s off-menu twist on the rife classic that had our entire table in awe and savoring every bite.
Entrees are even more multifaceted and unpredictable, namely Curried Goat with sweet potato, wait for it, gnocchi whirling in its self-induced piquant fluids and crowned with chopped cashews for a nutty finish. It’s everything you’d expect and more from the queen of gnocchi herself. (Watch her make the soft dough dumplings here). Hot Fire Chicken is fried to golden perfection and erupting with intensity that’s leveled out with cooling pickles, tart and juicy chunks of mango, and sweet squash. A daily special of black and white al dente pasta Vongole finished with breadcrumbs should be on the menu.
Endings are usually bittersweet. Not at Compère Lapin, which culminates with a deconstructed velvety lime Cheesecake that foregoes original crust for a cashew krokant and caps it off with mango granita. Another hit was the deconstructed Caribbean Rum Cake with caramelized pineapple & coconut sorbet. Beignet what?!?
Nina, New Orleans is lucky to have you…