A stylish CBD restaurant that seemed to portend the future has finally come into its own as the neighborhood has changed around it.
This is the story of how even a relatively young restaurant can change frequently and rapidly and come out better in the end.
I’m talking about Sainte Marie Brasserie, a gorgeous contemporary restaurant on the ground floor of a brand-spanking-new high rise in the CBD. I’d been visiting this restaurant periodically since it opened in 2010 but I could never get the right handle on it.
Then, over the summer, I tried a dish called BBQ jerk shrimp, which borrows a little from New Orleans barbeque shrimp, a lot from Jamaican-style jerk and dresses the whole thing loudly, and wonderfully, with sweet and tart mango chow chow. This dish could well have come from an altogether different restaurant than the next one I tried at Sainte Marie: a subtle and delicate quinoa and crabmeat salad. But these two dishes both point in the same direction, namely to refreshing originality and consistency at a restaurant that has long needed a stronger dose of both.
They’re each standouts on the latest menu at Sainte Marie, where a revamp that’s been underway for some time — and was interrupted by real tragedy — is now coming into full bloom.
But those changes aren’t necessarily evident at first glance. After all, the first thing you notice about Sainte Marie is its striking design, and that remains the same. It’s a cool, modern space with soaring ceilings, a wall of windows and a look that could pass for an architecture studio, which is only accentuated by the vintage map of its downtown neighborhood stenciled on the wall over the bar. But earlier menus mixing French bistro standards with American comfort food trends always seemed more about form to me than about really fulfilling flavor, and the restaurant’s identity felt unsettled from visit to visit.
However, Sainte Marie started shaking things up, from the management team to the kitchen to the bar, where an earlier Champagne theme was replaced by craft cocktails. A Sainte Marie 2.0 was well underway when, in January, its young chef Ngoc Nguyen suddenly died. His recent successor is Kristen Essig. That’s familiar name for foodies in the know. She’s a veteran of A-list local kitchens and a former manager of the Crescent City Farmers Market. Now at Sainte Marie, she’s developed a menu that shifts between East and West but tends to land squarely on the sweet spot.
For instance, that quinoa and crab salad had the genius addition of smoked goat cheese, which pulls off the nifty trick of making the crab taste smoked without diminishing its fresh sweetness. Steamed mussels have an exhilarating red miso broth and apples and fried oysters make a less than obvious but undeniably compatible pairing over a tangle of soft, peppery watercress and avocado mash, which is what the cool kids are calling guacamole these days.
As much as Sainte Marie has changed lately, the neighborhood around it has been changing too. Where Sainte Marie once felt a bit pioneering, there’s now a full-blown cluster of new restaurants around it. A new streetcar line rolls two blocks away. And new construction is going up everywhere. The promises we’ve heard about a resurgent downtown are a lot more tangible now, and as a better-then-ever Sainte Marie turns the corner this restaurant feels right at home with the new energy here.
930 Poydras St., New Orleans, 504-304-6988