Food And Drink Light Up Lee Circle

Jul 11, 2013

The Hotel Modern is home to both the craft cocktail lounge Bellocq and the new restaurant Tivoli & Lee.
Credit Ian McNulty

It’s time for another look at Lee Circle, where craft cocktails and a contemporary Southern bistro are drawing new interest to the landmark uptown/downtown juncture. 

A space imbued with great design can be like a person blessed with great genes. Even after years of shabby treatment, they still have the ability to bounce back.

That’s the case these days around Lee Circle, the graceful fulcrum between Uptown and downtown. Yes, a pair of gas stations still hold down two of its landmark corners, and one of those is currently abandoned. And yes, nearly an entire block just off the circle is occupied by Louisiana ArtWorks, a sprawling arts complex that was supposed to anchor a neighborhood revival but quickly turned into a boondoggle. 

But elsewhere, on a much smaller scale, new signs of life have emerged along Lee Circle’s curves. Not surprisingly in this town, a lot of it has to do with food and drink.

For instance, just across from the shuttered Louisiana ArtWorks there’s Keife & Co., a first-rate wine store and specialty food shop modeled after a Barcelona boutique. Nearby, the longtime music joint the Circle Bar is gleaming after a smart renovation. And across the circle, there’s the Hotel Modern, a stylish, contemporary hotel that has fostered both the craft cocktail lounge Bellocq and a new restaurant called Tivoli & Lee, which is doing its part and then some to return a little luster to the circle.

Tivoli & Lee functions like a modern, somewhat upscale neighborhood restaurant. Inside, there’s a mix of bare tables and deep, cove-like booths. Broad windows frame the circle’s monument to General Lee and the passing streetcar, while a carousel motif worked throughout the décor brings the idea of the circle inside. And then there’s chef Mike Nirenberg’s seasonally-tuned interpretation of regional cuisine to seal the deal.

Some of the dishes at Tivoli & Lee are identifiably Southern, without falling to caricature, while others are classic, without seeming formal. For instance, a recent special was essentially Delta-style fish and chips, with a long flank of peppery, crackling-crisp fried catfish and an aromatic curry aioli that I caught myself slathering on everything within reach. But then there’s the duck confit, a textbook French edition with a rigid, deeply-fatted crust that seems to somehow distill the richness of the meat inside.

One little sideline specialty at Tivoli & Lee are andouille tots, which is the campy but accurate name for fried wads of shredded potato with smoky sausage bits and a little manchego cheese. Another winner are cornmeal-crusted oysters, which are topped with a beet and green onion dressing and chips of prosciutto. What sounded like a straightforward salad became a fascinating back-and-forth between fresh arugula, pickled beans, tender poached shrimp and crunchy croutons while the sweet corn ice cream melting over blueberry bread pudding carried the essence of summer flavors.

Business tends to pick up somewhat later at Tivoli & Lee. If the place looks dead at 7 p.m., it could be bustling after an hour. Maybe that’s because of the bar, which is a craft cocktail destination in its own right. It’s professional, approachable and bilingual with classics and originals. In fact, that particular combination is a trifecta Tivoli & Lee hits pretty squarely overall, and it adds up to one more reason to be excited for what’s happening on Lee Circle.

Tivoli & Lee

926 St. Charles Ave., 504-962-0909