New Orleans cuisine has always been multicultural. The city’s food developed from a collision of West African and European cooking styles over New World ingredients, resulting in gumbo, etouffee and jambalaya. Over the last decade, an infusion of young chefs like Phillip Lopez (Root), Cristina Quackenbush (Milkfish) and Alon Shaya (Domenica, Shaya) have stretched the definition of New Orleans food beyond traditional Creole and Cajun fare. The latest contributor to this growth is former Top Chef contestant Nina Compton, with her restaurant Compere Lapin.
Compton, a native of St. Lucia, was lured to Louisiana to compete on the New Orleans season of Top Chef, where she finished second and won the title of Fan Favorite.
“I knew right away that New Orleans was where I wanted to be,” Compton said. “The culinary community here is unlike any place I’ve been, and I’m thrilled to become a part of it.”
Prior to that, her culinary journey took her through New York’s Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. Most recently, she held the title of chef de cuisine at Scarpetta in Miami. Her background in French technique and Italian pasta-making informs the menu at Compere Lapin just as much as her Caribbean heritage.
Located in the freshly-renovated Old No. 77 Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street, Compere Lapin’s expansive French doors, exposed brick and funky light fixtures check all the boxes for modern restaurant design. The overall aesthetic parallels the building’s former purpose of a warehouse, leading to an atmosphere that’s convivial, cool and comfortable. A marble-topped bar faces the open kitchen, granting guests a glimpse at the action. Front-of-house operations are run by Larry Miller, Compton’s husband, and while the staff seemed a bit frazzled late on a busy Saturday night, our meal went off without a hitch.
The menu at Compere Lapin draws equal inspiration from St. Lucia, New Orleans and Italy, with fresh Gulf seafood topped by bright, piquant sauces and undergirded by handmade pastas. The meal’s opener, however, is straight-up Southern–buttermilk biscuits, served with bacon butter and a sublime salted honey butter. Dense and pillowy with a crispy crust, these are biscuits any mamaw would be proud to serve.
Smaller plates include conch croquettes with pickled pineapple tartar sauce, and roasted jerk corn on-the-cob smeared with aioli and lime. Humbly listed as “crispy dirty rice,” Chef Compton’s arancini analogue might be the pluperfect bar food. A niblet of cheese is surrounded by pork-flecked dirty rice, which is then breaded and deep fried. Served with a tart, cumin-laced mojo sauce, these salty spheres sum up all that’s fun, delicious and interesting about Compere Lapin in two bites.
Another standout is the broiled shrimp, a smoky take on classic New Orleans barbecued shrimp, served shell-on in a small cast iron skillet and bathing in a pool of Calabrian chili butter. Cold-smoked tuna tartare is beautifully constructed but the mesquite smoke overwhelms the rest of the dish.
If there’s one menu item that best represents where Compton stands as a chef, it’s her curried goat with plantain gnocchi. “It’s my comfort food,” she said, and it’s a dish that certainly feels like home cooking. Goat isn’t the most familiar protein to diners in the U.S., but in this dish it behaves like a gamey piece of pork shoulder, unctuous and tender. Soft, sweet plantain gnocchi soak up the bright, pungent curry, and a sprinkle of cilantro provides welcome bitterness. A dish so novel and bold risks wearing out its welcome after the first few bites, but the thoughtful balance of flavors and textures had us cleaning our plates.
Compere Lapin’s cocktail program is helmed by a couple of New Orleans bartending heavyweights: Ricky Gomez (formerly of Cure located on Freret) and Eater NOLA 2014 Bartender of the Year Abigail Gullo. Their drinks jive perfectly with the restaurant’s jovial island feel, while expressing enough diversity to supply several visit’s worth of variety. Bold creations like the Jerez Highball (Fino en Rama, carbonated coco water, absinthe) nestle up to sessionable long drinks, like a shandy featuring IPA and elderflower, and a watermelon Pimm’s cup reminiscent of a liquid SweetTart. Options may lean a bit too sweet and fruity for some, but this is excusably seasonal and in step with Compere Lapin’s cuisine.
The restaurant even has their coffee game on point. Compere Lapin’s cafe extension, Tout La, serves custom roasts from local New Orleans roaster French Truck. Coffee is an aspect of dining that many restaurants neglect, much to their detriment, but Compton recognizes its importance.
“I think having good food, cocktails and coffee are all very important in a restaurant,” she said. “Each plays off one another and no good restaurant is complete without all three.”
Chef Compton arrived in New Orleans at a fortuitous moment. Food has never not been important here, but the city is experiencing a burst of growth and innovation not seen since it’s late 19th century heyday. “My cooking has become more soulful and approachable,” Compton said, since arriving. “The people here have such great energy; they are keeping me playful.”
Thus far, she’s doing a fine job returning the favor to her guests, keeping us on our toes and delightfully engaged.