6078 Laurel St
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
The Uptown address of the restaurant Patois had a long history as Norby's, a neighborhood bar with a regular clientele of local college sports fanatics. But people hardly ever talk about Norby's when they're in Patois, and I think that's because they're too busy talking about the exciting food here and contributing to the buzz of energy in this place. Chef Aaron Burgau opened Patois late in 2007 with business partners Leon and Pierre Touzet, whose family has a long history in New Orleans restaurants. Burgau worked under New Orleans chefs like Susan Spicer and Gerard Maras, and he has also been on staff at the Crescent City Farmers Market. Those influences are easy to see in the cuisine at Patois, which mixes regional Louisiana flavors with international flair and a copious amount of fresh, local produce.
Most vestiges of the old Norby's days have been erased by thorough renovations, and that's just as well considering the ambitions of Patois. Norby's was a smoky corner joint. Patois is a high-end restaurant with creative cuisine and a decidedly hip, stylish ambiance. The transformation was helped along by the first business to replace Norby's here, an Italian restaurant called Nardo's Trattoria that opened in 2004 but closed in 2007. The Patois folks came in after that, opening the place up with more windows and creating a contemporary vibe with decorative painting, contemporary art and mellow colors. The word on Patois got around early. It attracts an enthusiastic and well-dressed crowd, and reservations are essential most nights.
I really like Patois, but some significant downsides are the size of the dining rooms and their noise level. The size is very small, and the volume is very big. Service is usually on the money, but occasionally gets overwhelmed and this can create a kind of frantic feeling on busy nights. There is a lot of reaching across tables and shouting of specials, which has more to do with the tight confines than any shortcoming on servers' part. But it's important to know when considering Patois. This is not the place for a quiet, candlelit meal.
The dining room noise may melt into the background, however, when the server brings out a clay pot of piping hot brioche rolls, a freebie so rich they don't need butter.
An appetizer of gnocchi makes a great first taste of Burgau's approach. The little potato dumplings are soft and delicate, they get a rich sage brown butter sauce, shaved parmesan cheese gives salty creaminess and then Italian bacon adds bits of crisp texture and smoky flavor.
Burgau makes his own boudin, hogshead cheese and pork rilletes for a Cajun country charcuterie plate. This is all good, but I think it's too hearty and filling as a first course, even when splitting it. The most interesting appetizer for me was a traditional French soup called garbure. Think minestrone without the pasta, yet not as homey. Pieces of pork belly float on the surface and there's a bright, herbal flavor from an arugula pesto.
Burgau's love of farmers market produce and international flavors is written big and bold in his entrees. His rabbit stands out in particular for its rustic but carefully composed approach. The tender white meat is paired with Italian sausage -- again prepared in-house - and a line-up of grilled artichoke hearts, fennel, olives and goat cheese polenta. The grilled ribeye sounds like a straight-up meat and potatoes option, but a red wine reduction plumped up with ham hock adds another dimension. The roasted pheasant breast is teamed with a crispy, rich confit leg, which proved the better part of the dish.
Seafood changes up quite a bit, but I'm a big fan of the shrimp with house-made fettuccine, recently done with shards of Italian bacon, lemon and fava beans, showing how good seafood and beans can be together.
The big, primary flavors of the appetizers and entrees give way to a more subtle hand with the desserts at Patois. For instance, tiramisu has the unusual and light flavor of orange blossom running through it, and Pontchatoula strawberry beignets came with Creole cream cheese enhanced by a light touch of lavender. Also, if you eyed the cheese plate on the appetizer list but chose something else, it appears again at dessert. Little nibbles of these always-changing but always-interesting cheeses are a great way to stretch a meal you just don't want to end.
The bar at Patois has developed a small cocktail scene in its own right, and people turning up just for a drink in the stylish dining room probably contribute inordinately to the roar of the place. The cocktails are creative, though the wine list is short and expensive.
This is an expensive restaurant, no doubt about it. Most of the appetizers are over $10. Entrees range from $21 to $29, with most over $25. A couple sharing a bottle of wine should expect to spend no less than $150 for dinner. Sunday brunch and Friday-only lunch are much less expensive, however, and each menu has some dishes riffing on the same themes as the dinner menu.
The buzz around this restaurant is backed up Burgau's cooking. The cuisine at Patois is new and exciting, without being challenging or cerebral. It is, at its core, familiar, comforting food assembled with some creative flashes. But most of all it pushes the goodness of the raw ingredients into the spotlight. It adds up to a fresh, new take of classic flavors, and it's a winning formula.