Last Wednesday, Rhett and I headed over to Restaurant IPO for an amazing dinner any new couple would be jealous of.
We were celebrating our three month anniversary (summer romance, yes?) and Rhett had the brilliant idea to suggest one of Baton Rouge’s newest eateries, Restaurant IPO. Located in downtown Baton Rouge, Restaurant IPO is within walking distance of the river, Blend (previously the Wine Loft), Red Star Bar (now closed), and Strands. It’s centrally located, making it a great place for lunchtime decadence with a co-worker or tapas with a loved one.
But Restaurant IPO’s menu isn’t an homage to workday sandwiches and salads, but a tour of our state’s essential seafare in the Creole tradition–mussels, oysters, crawfish, and coastal fish are served up in a specialized tapas menu. Everything from simple french fries dressed in bleu cheese and gravy to mussels curried with Indian spices and coconut give life to classic ingredients in an innovative and modern way. I’m forever a fan of a chef who can take a simple shell fish and make it his own while bedding the main ingredient in a taste of Creole spices (that, technically, might not actually be Creole or Cajun, but you’d never know from the way the dish is prepared). The menu has a strong flare for the Creole side of Louisiana cooking, but expands and breathes with soft-blended cheeses and candied pecans on salads (more on this later) and sweet summer corn in a too-good-not-to-order bisque.
I am convinced that Baton Rouge has needed a tapas restaurant for years, and it’s a pleasure to know that when I next want to get “tapas” with a girlfriend on a late Tuesday night, Restaurant IPO will be there for my eating comfort.
But, let’s get back to the food.
Rhett and I started our dinner with draft beer and margaritas. Restaurant IPO’s margaritas are muddled with ginger and a combination of citrus juice; plus, the bar’s tap boasts a few of my favorite brews. Although Rhett sampled several beers from the bar, I ended our meal with my often sought-after Covington Strawberry.
We spoke briefly with Executive Chef Wadsworth who explained that “IPO” stands for “Initial Public Offer” and the ways of his menu. Apparently, the night before, they had made corn dogs with lobster. I loved the notion of turning a traditional carnival snack on a stick into a gourmet experience. Having grown up on the coast of Maine, I am certain last weekend’s Lobster Festival did not have corn dogs boasting lobster inside.
Always the gentleman, Rhett suggested we order a series of dishes from the menu that would allow us to best sample its range. Since the place has been receiving Internet buzz as the new “tapas” place in town, I thought ordering from the tapas menu was a fantastic idea. Here are some dishes and thoughts on the menu we sampled:
Pictured: $8 Heirloom Salad with fried okra, heirloom tomatoes, and mixed greens.
I ordered the Heirloom Salad the second I saw it was topped with fried okra. Okra is a southern vegetable I have a love-hate relationship with. I know it’s essential in the thickening and flavors of this gumbo, but I just can’t get over the slime. But this doesn’t mean that okra has to be slimy. In fact, the most popular ways it’s served–fried in a simple breading–avoids this texture altogether. And this okra was perfect–grabbing one off the plate as we took pictures, Rhett tasted the okra and said, “Helana, you have to try this before it gets cold,” and he’s right, okra is best served hot. It has a buttery vegetable feel to the texture and a rich sense of southern comfort food.
The unique combination of hot okra on a bed of chilled greens really gave life to this salad. Rhett’s always saying the dozen or so ways we can toss together a weeknight salad and the idea of adding warm, buttery okra fit the bill nicely.
Pictured: $8 Strawberry Can Salad
For Rhett’s salad course, he honed in on the Strawberry Can Salad instantly. And I don’t blame him–one of my favorite ways to dress a spinach salad is with the addition of Bourbon Candied Pecans, summer strawberries, and goat cheese (as seen here). But the Strawberry Can Salad was different from my own, primarily, in the way the cheese was prepared. The soft white cheese crumbled over the corners of the salad looking more like clouds or candy than any goat cheese I’d seen before. And, here’s why: the cheese is actually a unique blend of goat cheese and bleu making a flavor that can be hard to pinpoint at first, but wonderfully savory. The perfect bite is a little bit of everything–strawberry, cheese, spinach, and pecans. Rhett cleaned his plate.
Pictured: $7 Fire Roasted Corn and Crab Bisque–a too-good-to-be-true sweet and savory soup that I’ll be dreaming about all week.
As I sampled forkfuls of okra and mixed greens, I used my other hand to dig into this Corn and Crab Bisque. The soup was loaded with corn and the flavor of crab permeated the broth. Certainly, there wasn’t crab in every bite (don’t allow me to mislead you), but the presence of crab was easy to taste and corn cozied up nicely to this succulent shellfish. I love soup in ways I cannot explain, and I found this bisque to be brilliant. It was buttery, sweet, and had great texture (many thanks I’m sure to the fire roasting of the corn).
Pictured: Oysters Bienville
When our server brought out this dish, I instantly questioned whether or not I’d be able to finish our meal. Already, we’d had a sampling of salads and soup, and I didn’t know if I could continue the process of tasting and eating. Why? Well, I fear this picture doesn’t do justice to the overall size of these oysters. They were, hands down, big enough to cover my palm, and the filling dripped in cheesy-goodness over the sides. The combination of Parmesan, parsley, and oysters with a smooth and subtle cream sauce helped me and Rhett to dirty our forks nicely. Although you won’t find Oysters Bienville on Restaurant IPO’s regular menu, I’m certain readers will be seeing it as a special and it would never hurt to ask to see if the chef could make it.
Pictured: $10 Divers in Nage–one of my favorite items on the menu.
Within seconds of seeing the tapas menu, I knew this scallops dish with its buttery sauce and soft meat would be my pick for our tapas course. Scallops are a soft seafood that, when prepared correctly, can taste a little bit like heaven. In fact, as my “Uncle” Paul explained to me the last time I was in Maine, scallops can be eaten raw and taste quite beautiful in this state. Perhaps this is why Divers in Nage had such a fresh feel to it–the scallops are poached in a golden saffron nage sauce that adds flavor to the shellfish meat, but doesn’t overpower the flesh. The unique poaching of delicate seafoods in white wine, butter, and herbs are one of the most beautiful ways you can order shellfish. For me, I could have eaten this entire dish by myself. This time, I cleaned the plate.
Pictured: $9 Pequeno Tacos: tacos filled with red fish ceviche and topped with an avocado relish.
The Pequeno Tacos were an excellent second choice since the taco shell is fried in house (no pre-made tortilla shells here) and served with red fish ceviche as the main ingredient. Although I thought this dish was good–quite good–it wasn’t my favorite. I found the ceviche hard to taste between the avocado relish, cream, and dark shell. But this may be my own hiccup–I have strong feelings about fresh, lime and cilantro-based ceviche (as introduced to me by Victor Pineda) and when the main ingredient didn’t taste as I had expected (or could be tasted), I was confused by the composition of ingredients. But this version of ceviche isn’t Victor’s–it’s something quite different and delicious in its own way. The avocado relish is tart and creamy and the shell is dark and corn-like. This would make for an excellent appetizer with white wine or a light beer, and I was impressed with how well the sturdy shell held together while eating it. No crumbled chip pieces and half-broken bites here.
Pictured: $7 Bleu Cheese Frites
We finished our tapas course with pure comfort food–Bleu Cheese Frites. Rhett and I have the worst habit of ordering french fries together. If we’ve had one or two drinks, we make poor nutritional choices and always order a plate of fries. In truth, french fries are greasy, carb-loaded, but insanely good. They make the best kinds of bar food and a surprising venue for culinary innovation.
Since we couldn’t skip the chance to try a version of our favorite snack with sharp bleu cheese and buttery gravy, we ordered this decadent tapas to end our main course. I feel that little can be said about this dish as the picture really speaks for itself–the fries were soft, but not overly crispy, and the sauce was a handsome gravy boating around a tall island of fries. Each bite had just a hint of gravy in it (plus more, if you’re a dipper) and when blended with the bleu cheese, the dish was pure savory goodness. I want to order these again and again.
Pictured: $8-10 Sweet Potato Bread Pudding
Since I watched Paul Purdhomme make bread pudding on TV as a child, I’ve been drawn to this quintessential Louisiana dish. The dish was served specially on the desserts menu and tasted like the onset of fall and cooler weather. As Chef Wadsworth explained, there’s no sugar in this dish except for the sauce, so the breading gets its flavor from the natural sweetness of the potatoes. The breading was light and fluffy, and the sauce was a rich caramel of spices and nuts. Rhett truly knows how to spoil and take a girl to dinner.
Pictured: $8-10 Miniature Apple Pie with Rum-Milk Shots
As I dug my fork into the airy rolls of Wadsworth’s bread pudding, Rhett worked his way through the crust and sugary-topping of this miniature apple pie. Although the crust was good and the filling sweet, the filling seemed surprisingly thick as if it wanted for more sauce or caramelization. Fortunately, this dessert is served with two shots of rum milk and each bite is made just a little bit better with the combination of a sip and bite from the two.
Our experience at Restaurant IPO was lovely between the cheerful service and sumptuous menu. I loved how the simplest of dishes were inspired with culinary flare–bleu cheese frites and salad with okra showed just how comfort food could be a little gourmet while still keeping the flavors we love. Simultaneously, the menu offered a survey of the state’s best seafood and really spoke to my coastal dining sensibilities.
To say the menu was “brilliant” would be an understatement–it was inspired. We found classic favorites done in new and different ways and concepts behind food we might have never considered. With a kiss, a tip, and a walk to the car, Restaurant IPO made for the perfect anniversary spot. Rhett and I both went home and promptly added the restaurant to our list of “Favorites” on Urbanspoon.
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Written by: Helana Brigman