Team Spirits: SoBou, New Orleans
As with many aspects of life in the Crescent City, the bar reigns supreme at this latest outpost from a venerable restaurant group. Todd A. Price bellies up.
SoBou in New Orleans bills itself as a “spirited restaurant.” Stand on the flagstone sidewalk outside, and you can already glimpse the curved granite-topped bar. Step inside the new French Quarter venture, developed by the Commander’s Family of Restaurants at a cost of over $3 million, and you’ll discover a shrine to mixology.
At an illuminated four-seat “bar chef’s table” embedded into the far end of the bar, prix-fixe meals are paired with cocktails. In the chocolate brown dining room accented with gold, cases display ancient bottles and other artifacts from the Museum of the American Cocktail. An image etched on a glass could be mistaken for a jigger, but it’s actually an eggcup, or “coquetier” in French. A much disputed legend claims brutish Americans in early 19th century New Orleans mispronounced that word and inadvertently coined the term “cocktail.” The lighting is all indirect in the 120 seat dining room and at the 14 seat bar, designed by New York City’s Nemaworkshop. The entire room glows the way bottles do on a lit backbar.
“You get that light you want in a saloon,” said Ti Adelaide Martin, a partner in the Commander’s Family of Restaurants. “It makes you want to have a drink.” SoBou, which stands for “South of Bourbon Street” and opened last July, takes cooking as seriously as cocktails, blurring the boundary between a bistro and a bar. “People can come in and have an app, entrée, dessert, and leave,” Martin said, “or they can hang out, which they’re doing.” There are even electrical outlets below the bar if someone wants to linger with a laptop.
Ask Martin, the daughter of legendary restaurateur Ella Brennan, who came up with the concept for SoBou and she’ll give full credit to her staff. She’s not being modest. Since 2009, Martin has assigned “Summer Consulting Projects” to her managers from both the front and the back of the house. The MBA-style case studies pull together employees from the group’s restaurants, including New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace and the more casual Café Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar and in Houston Bistro Alex and Brennan’s of Houston. “A lot of time, younger managers can manage a dining room and they think they can run a restaurant, but they know nothing about the rest of the picture,” said Martin, who, with her spiky hair and quick laugh, has the demeanor of that favorite aunt your mother never fully approved of.
Two years ago, she gave her staff free rein to develop a new concept for a hypothetical restaurant. Tory McPhail, executive chef at Commander’s Palace, suggested a place “where you didn’t have to wear a coat and tie,” where he would go after a shift. Lu Brow, bar chef for the group, wanted to “flip the page” on the menu and make drinks the main priority. By the end of the summer, the teams had mocked up everything from menus to training manuals. When Starwood’s W New Orleans-French Quarter approached Martin about taking over its recently vacated restaurant, she immediately handed them a full business plan.
“And then we were off to the races, other than the races are really slow when it’s with a big corporation,” laughed Martin. “We’re a business within a business. We have total freedom. We run the restaurant.”
Drink sales at SoBou make up some 30 percent of the ticket average. The small bar, which can only fit four bartenders, stays busy. Bar chef Abigail Gullo deals with the volume by keeping her recipes simple. “I do a lot of prep work ahead of time in the kitchen,” said Gullo, who worked at New York City’s Fort Defiance and The Beagle before relocating to New Orleans to open SoBou. “By building flavors with syrups and bitters, you have both that freshness and that immediateness.” The current cocktail list includes classics, like bucks, fizzes, and a Margarita goosed up with lavender syrup, and originals such as a Faubourg Tall Boy, made with Earl Grey infused gin, cassis, lemon, and sparkling wine.
SoBou also has a front “beer garden”: three tables with self-service taps pouring local craft beers. In that same area, two Napa Technology machines dispense 16 wines by the ounce, half glass, or full glass. The wine program is overseen by sommelier Dan Davis, who goes by the humble title “the wine guy” and recently helped Commander’s Palace secure a coveted Grand Award from Wine Spectator.
The 30-item food menu, created by McPhail and SoBou’s executive chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez, leans heavily toward small plates and dishes designed to be shared. Louisiana ingredients meld with the flavors of Gonzalez’s native Puerto Rico. Fried oysters, a New Orleans staple, are served as a taco topped with local Ghost Pepper caviar. The shrimp and tasso pinchos elevate the fare of Puerto Rican roadside vendors. And the almost obligatory burger comes with bruléed onions, pepper jack cheese, cayenne ketchup, and pickled okra mayonnaise. The foie gras burger, on the other hand, layers a slice of Hudson Valley foie gras with a yard egg sunnyside up, duck bacon, and foie gras mayo. A special “snacks” section takes care of the drinking crowd with options like blue crab mousse, spicy house-made beer nuts, and Cajun Queso—pork cracklin’s paired with a pimento cheese–style fondue. The snacks are prioritized in the kitchen and are delivered to guests minutes after a ticket arrives.
“Not everything needs to be à la minute cooking,” said Gonzalez. “You can have a good product that’s not frozen but is still quick and prepared ahead of time so that you only have to put a little garnish on top.” He pointed to the yellowfin tuna cones, where precut tuna is mixed with chopped pineapple and coconut, seasoned, scooped into a cone, and topped with savory basil and avocado ice cream. “Boom,” he said, “that took a minute.”
A drinks-focused offshoot is a natural step for Commander’s Palace, which has been serving cocktails since before—and even during—Prohibition. When Martin published the Commander’s Kitchen cookbook in 2000 with the late chef Jamie Shannon, she insisted over the objections of her New York City editor that the first chapter be devoted to drinks. After all, no matter what the rest of the country was doing, a proper New Orleans meal has always started with a cocktail or two. The Swizzle Stick Bar at Café Adelaide, which opened in 2003, was one of the first New Orleans venues to embrace the current cocktail revival. And in 2007 Martin, with her cousin Lally Brennan, released In the Land of Cocktails, showcasing examples from Brow at the Swizzle Stick Bar (see “On with the Show,” Food Arts, October 2007). “We always,” Martin said, “believed in the cocktail.”
SoBou shared several drinks recipes with Food Arts; find them here: