The Elysian Bar in New Orleans’ Marigny neighborhood occupies the 150-year-old rectory of Saints Peter & Paul. Set behind a gated garden of pygmy palms, the building is an inviting confection of brick and marzipan stucco. I don’t so much walk through the arched doorway as a magnetizing presence inside summons me forth, the single gas lantern flickering above my head like biblical tongues.
A long hallway stretches down the first floor of the former clergy quarters. There’s a snug coffee bar to the right. Two adjoining parlors to the left are lit and furnished for the sequel to Interview With the Vampire: ornately mantled fireplaces, cane chairs with crimson cushions, marble tables with legs shaped like sea serpents, eruptions of ferns and blood-purple flowers, body-length gold mirrors, bustled and billowing mustard drapes framing a burgundy gingham sofa like a theater stage. The dreamy space feels less like a restaurant than an exclusive house party you were invited to by mistake or as a cruel joke.
I pause by the entrance near a stack of menus, waiting for a host. There’s one on staff (management confirms later) but none appears, so I walk down the hallway. It’s difficult to tell the staff from the diners, but no one says hi or can I help you, so I keep going. The hall opens into a sunroom modeled after Monet’s dining room in Giverny, France. One door leads out to a brick courtyard, guarded by stained-glass saints watching from the 24-foot windows. Another doorway connects to the moody vermilion bar, whose cocktail menu showcases a grand tour of vermouths, including an Athenian rouge that smells like a bowl of vanilla and roses. I wait 10 minutes. Neither of the bartenders acknowledges me.
I backtrack to the foyer, where someone tells me to sit anywhere and “a server will be right over.” A server does not come right over. Then two do, a moment apart. The first takes my drink order and the second takes my food order, as if they were cocktail waitresses absentmindedly wandering the Harrah’s casino floor. Then Martha Wiggins materializes alongside my table, bearing a bowl of grilled okra and crispy, rice-floured-and-fried eggplant lashed with harissa, and the night starts looking up.
After she became a Popsicle tycoon but before she was a hotelier, People’s Pops founder Nathalie Jordi would pass the Peter & Paul compound—the schoolhouse, the rectory, the church, the convent—all closed more than a decade before she relocated to New Orleans from Brooklyn in 2009. “These buildings tower over the neighborhood,” she says. “They were dark and gloomy but still very beautiful.”
Jordi wanted to open a hotel in Marigny, but “much smaller and more modest” than the 71-key situation she wound up with: “I was aware of the [Peter & Paul buildings] but they just seemed out of my league because they were so big and required so much expensive renovation.” Partnering with design firm ASH NYC (the Dean in Providence, the Siren in Detroit) made the $20 million, four-year rehabilitation possible, and the Hotel Peter & Paul opened in October. The Elysian Bar, which is managed by the folks behind the Bywater smash Bacchanal, debuted a month later.
I wake up in a wrought-iron canopy bed, in an attractively monastic room at the foot of a dramatic wishbone-shaped cypress staircase in the old schoolhouse, thinking about that eggplant and okra. The tender vegetables were shellacked in fragrant, feisty pepper paste. Crème fraîche, fennel, and mint countered with cool touches. Black sesame seeds, whole cumin seeds, and peanuts made every bite crunch like Cracker Jacks.
Martha Wiggins, deliverer of the dish, is the chef de cuisine to Alex Harrell’s executive chef, and the two go way back. They cooked together at Sylvain and Angeline and have resumed their easy two-step at Elysian Bar, banging out an all-day menu featuring Southern produce and proteins on an international vacation. Huge, sweet, head-on prawns were plucked from the gulf, roasted, and bathed in fruity-hot Calabrian chile butter. Lacto-fermented corn blew up a mild-mannered cucumber salad with mini explosions of sugar, salt, and funk.
The grits were best I’ve eaten, a strain of red corn grown and dried by the Alabama coast, milled at Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, and finally simmered with milk and cream into a porridge as silky and beige as cappuccino foam. They came topped with a perfect poached egg, frizzled shallots, and mushrooms suspended in a barbecue-y tomato sauce, all delicious but ultimately unnecessary. These grits stand alone.
Elysian Bar’s eerie evening glamour abates in the sunlight. At 8:30 in the morning, when I shuffle across the hotel courtyard into the restaurant, the place feels like a mansion museum before the docents have arrived. There are no customers and no breakfast besides baked goods at the twee coffee bar—strange for a hotel restaurant. “The menu starts at 10:30,” says a dour barista, passing a cup of Congregation Coffee across the counter. She looks like she needs it more than I do.
I take the coffee for a walk around Marigny, where the houses are taffy-colored and the sidewalks cracked like Kit Kats. Trees turn whole blocks into canopied tunnels of greenery, and the air is thick with humidity and magnolias. There are worse places to wait for a restaurant to open.
I head back into Elysian Bar at 11 a.m. and, just like at dinner, there’s no staff to direct me. I wander into the sunroom, by daylight a country kaleidoscope of lemons and sapphires, and sit down. A server appears to inform me I have to order at the bar, and while I can order now, the kitchen won’t start serving food until 11:30. So I get up from my table, walk into the bar, place (and pay for) my order with the bartender. Nearly an hour later, the server then delivers that order to my table. Confused? Me too.
Harrell and Wiggins hold up their end of the deal again. The tannish-gray puck of sunchoke custard looks like something you’d use to grout bathroom tile, but it tastes purely of the creamy, nutty Jerusalem artichokes. A tangle of shaved asparagus, arugula, and radishes tossed in acidic, mustardy vinaigrette surrounds the custard like a green halo. Bourbon creates a subtle undercurrent of sweetness in the exquisite chicken liver pâté. Grilled sliced of wheat-y Bellegarde sourdough and tangy strawberry-beet mostarda accompany, and the three components eaten together harmonize like a choir.
The duck egg omelet is perfect. Made with Mississippi eggs and served with a well-dressed pile of arugula, it’s as yellow as a buttercup, pregnant with rich, runny triple-crème cheese, and not too wet or too dry. Chives and bowfin caviar bead the omelet’s sloping surface, adding balancing pops of salinity and allium heat to each luxurious forkful. I would eat this every day for breakfast and never get bored.
It’s afternoon—literally, after noon—when my “breakfast” is done. I see my server/not-server once during the meal. Because I’ve already paid, I can leave quickly, without saying goodbye.
Many people think the best thing a hotel restaurant can be is not a hotel restaurant. It’s much more valuable to be a place activated by locals, somewhere authentic, with genuinely good food and noncorporate ambiance. Elysian Bar has clearly achieved that. The smart cooking and evocative atmosphere make it a spectacular place to be, but for the guest who wants to belong to another city for one night, to feel welcomed and cared for, it’s only spectacular in how short it falls.
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