The Three Muses
536 Frenchmen St
New Orleans, LA 70116
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
The name of this Frenchmen Street newcomer speaks to its three pursuits: music, drinks and food. The music comes courtesy of nightly jazz and roots performers set up in a corner of the small dining room, the bar takes care of drinks with a robust cocktail list and the food falls to well-known local chef Dan Esses, who has assembled a menu of internationally-influenced tapas. It all adds up to one of the more intriguing new additions, not just to the restaurant scene but to the nightlife scene in general.
The Three Muses' attractive, historic building had been boarded up for years, one of those neglected mysteries that endured even as Frenchmen Street rapidly redeveloped around it. Walk in today and you'll find the tiny stage right by the door, with performers framed by the big picture window. There is a scattering of small tables, and then the bar. The place fills up quickly, and it can feel very tight. You can get a solid dose of this place during a 20-minute stop, or you could spend the whole evening noshing along to the jazz numbers across the room.
There's a self-service approach here that not everyone will find appealing, though it seems essential to making the place work. You order from the bar, and a server finds you with your order as the tapas are ready. Given the multi-course format, the tight confines and the mix of eaters, drinkers and curious passersby, the servers do an impressive job of getting dishes out quickly, accurately and at a sensible pacing between rounds of dishes.
With its tapas format, there's no clear line between appetizers and entrees. The section of the menu labeled "snacks," however, has good choices for quick bar nibbles, like a bowl of edamame with sesame oil, spicy cashews roasted with cayenne and rosemary and or fries topped with feta cheese.
The format may come from the Spanish tapas tradition, but the small plates menu delivers flavors from all corners of the world. Different stripes of Asian cooking share the spotlight with Italian and Middle Eastern influences, for instance.
A meal could easily start with bruschetta topped with goat cheese and eggplant, move along to tuna tataki with blood oranges and sesame crackers and then come around to falafel sliders. I'm partial to the flaky rabbit empanadas though I never seem to find enough lobster in the lobster eggroll to satisfy. Esses makes his own pasta, so look for ravioli with fillings like mushrooms, leeks and ricotta.
Dishes like the pork belly braised in beer and apple cider, the linguini with clam sauce or the cannelloni stuffed with crab meat can seem like complete dishes, while others, like the shrimp on polenta triangles and the duck spring rolls, are more like passed hors d'oeuvres. My suggestion for assembling a full meal is to pick a mixture of these types of dishes, so you have some bite-sized examples and more filling fare too. Some of the more substantial dishes, for example, are the lamb sliders, which come two per order, and Korean kimchee platters with grilled beef and a selection of traditional condiments. There is an extensive vegetarian selection too.
Desserts have a similar level of sophistication as the savory items, and the tapas format actually makes this a viable option for someone who just wants to pop in for an after-dinner drink and dessert. The house-made ice cream flavors change regularly, and the strawberry pie and the warm peanut butter brownie are always good options.
The list of house drinks is in synch with the craft cocktail trend, with clever names, top-shelf ingredients and novel combinations. The Muse, with cucumbers, strawberries and gin, is a prime example, as is the Spaghetti Western, with bourbon, Compari and rosemary syrup. There's a nice, though pricey, wine list and a small, interesting draft beer selection.
Though most dishes are under $10, I'm always a bit surprised by how much I've plunked down after assembling a full meal here. It's easy to keep ordering and ordering and the dishes, though well-crafted, are generally not so large. Two people can easily drop $80 on tapas and drinks during a spell here.
The Three Muses combines an interesting new music venue, an attractive bar scene and great tapas and puts it all right in the heart of thriving Frenchmen Street nightlife scene. It's a great new addition on all of these fronts, and pulls off its tri-focal identity impressively well.