625 Chartres St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Ratings - **/*****
Sylvain is an unusual newcomer to the French Quarter. It's a casual place just off Jackson Square, the tourism nexus of the French Quarter, yet it's mercifully free of New Orleans culinary clichés and doesn't even take on the classic standards of local fare. You won't find jambalaya or gumbo here, much less shrimp remoulade or turtle soup. Rather, this place is in step with the gastropub trend. Its mid-range menu is built around upscale remakes of comfort food. The delivery of this concept is a bit uneven, but Sylvain is still a good place to keep in mind for a civilized, mid-range meal in the Quarter.
Sylvain's address had been empty for the last few years and its renovation bears all the character and detail of a true labor of love. The grace and allure of the old Quarter architecture is the main design element, and it lends a welcome, genuine air to this new restaurant. The main dining room has the feel of a tavern, with bare wood tables, simple Americana décor and a prominent bar. Tables in the narrow courtyard look directly into the kitchen, while in the far back there's one of those hidden, shaded, brick-lined cloisters that summon the full romance of the French Quarter.
Service has gone to both extremes on visits here. At some meals, we were looked after by well-informed, easygoing, friendly servers. On others, the rolled utensils waiting in the corner got more attention from our waiter than we did.
For its tavern setting, Sylvain needs more shareable dishes and suitable starters. The duck liver crostini seem to qualify, but the bread beneath the rich spread proved unpleasantly saturated with butter. The beet bruschetta slathered with goat cheese are a much better and lighter start. There's fried eggplant sticks, but you've had this done better at any number of Creole-Italian joints around town. My favorite first course here is the Brussels sprouts salad, which is a shredded heap of its namesake with hazelnuts, apples and pecorino cheese laced throughout. All of the salads are reliably crisp and fresh with convincing farmers market quality.
Following the gastropub script, Sylvain puts an upscale burger front and center. Its fat patty has that good, loose crumble and crusted surface texture of the hand-formed burger, and its bun is substantial enough to keep it all together. There's a layer of sharp cheddar, a pile of crisp fries and a few house-made pickles on the side. All in all, it fits the mold for the new gourmet burger trend now sweeping through mid-range and upscale restaurants, right down to its $15 price tag.
The house pasta is a delicate pappardelle in a burly Bolognese sauce, and the fish of the day usually gets a good if simple grilled preparation. Grilled garlic sausage over fingerling potatoes and cabbage is one of the most solid, reliable items on the menu, while I can only urge caution with the pork shoulder. It was described on the menu and by our waiter as "crispy," so I was expecting a traditional, smoky, crisp-skinned roast. Instead, this dish turns out to be like a crab cake of pork, coated in panko and fried. That would explain the "crispiness." It was alright for what it was, but not what I had hoped.
There are some consistency issues here, as we discovered during one dinner when everything seemed to fall flat. The fish, such a success on an earlier visit, was now a dud. It was drum, and while the presentation with a thin, bright, pesto was attractive, the fish proved mushy and overcooked. The duck confit the same night was served over white beans, resembling a deconstructed cassoulet, but the duck itself lacked that crackling crispness to set off the soft flesh underneath.
A brunch sometime later left a much better impression. We filled our table with a burger, a few salads, a salmon omelet, fettuccini carbonara and a few bloody Marys and with that we were well on our way to a great Sunday in the Quarter.
Know going in that portions here are not large. Some might find them just right, but they'll leave others looking for a next course.
The best choice for dessert at Sylvain is a cheese plate. It outshines the sweets, it's generous and well-composed and if your appetite is anything like mine you'll want something as filling as cheese after some of the entrees here.
The wine list is interesting enough, but for a place specializing in comfort food there are too few reasonable options by the bottle or by the glass. If I'm coming here for a burger and fries, I don't want to drop $40 for a bottle of Zinfindel. There is the de rigueur craft cocktail list with some interesting (and, again, expensive) additions, like "Lancelot's deception" and the "Dutch afro." Get a bloody Mary at brunch and it might come with a sidebar of cheap beer as an unusual accompaniment.
Prices seem moderate, with most entrees coming in well under $20, though as noted above the portions are modest by local standards. Drinks are expensive across the board, with $9 to $10 cocktails and very few wines under $40 a bottle. Two people should expect to drop about $100 on dinner with drinks.
Dinner in the French Quarter can present some challenges if you're not up for making reservations and shelling out at a fine restaurant and you're also unwilling to settle for the standard fare of tourist-oriented eateries. Sylvain takes aim at the niche somewhere between. It presents this in a charming setting more in line with the true beauty of the French Quarter than many of its better-known neighbors.