Meauxbar chef Kristen Essig is so excited about her team's smooth transition from the CBD spot Sante Marie to the French Quarter neighborhood bistro, that her words come tumbling out faster than can be written. The unusual restaurant switcheroo occurred within a few weeks in May - Sainte Marie closed up shop on May 4 and moved its entire staff to the other side of Canal Street, opening one week ago.
Even though an aborted robbery attempt destroyed their front door the day before opening, last Thursday went (relatively) smoothly with regulars of both the old Meauxbar and the old Sainte Marie in attendance. Essig is ecstatic about the transition, and when we spoke, she asks me not to use the word "wonderful" as many times in the article as she did during the interview.
How are things going one week in?
It's going really, really great. I'm just so excited, and so proud of our team - every single person has stepped up to make this a success. And to be in this beautifully curated space with the luxury of bringing over every single person, you don't have the challenges of waiting for a new team to work together well, because we've already got that. I'm extremely grateful. Especially the front of house staff - they've been working the entire time. I didn't cook for the two weeks during the transition.
And today, I have a day off! Who opens a restaurant and has a day off a week later? It's great to work somewhere that knows you need to take care of yourself.
How's business been this week?
Well, we didn't realize this, but Meauxbar used to be closed Sunday and Monday, and we're open seven days a week. So we had well over a hundred people in the first night we opened, then 50-60 on Friday and Saturday, and like 40-50 on Sunday and Monday. I'm relieved though - the restaurant's capacity is only 50, and I'm not ready yet to deal with having 150 people banging down the door at once.
How has the neighborhood accepted the changeover?
It's been overwhelmingly positive. People loved Matt [Guidry] and Jim [Conte] and what they created. It was like a second kitchen, a second home to them. We didn't want to come in and change everything up. It's kind of like a first date, we're meeting and getting to know each other now. One thing I love is that people are so comfortable in the space - regulars will mention cocktails or menu items they miss. I don't think people do that if they are intimidated or put off by a place.
How has it been combining Meauxbar's menu with your own style?
Well, I try to use seasonal and local ingredients, so some items aren't practical to keep on all the time. For example, Meauxbar had a beautiful frisee salad on the menu, but there's no frisee to be found in the area right now, and I don't have the space to store a large amount of it shipped up from Mexico.
At its heart, Meauxbar is a bistro, serving food I have loved for years. This is food I love to eat, and food I love to cook. So I understand the style. For the signature Bolognese, since we butcher everything in house and use every part of the animal, we now make it with pork, beef and chicken thighs instead of veal. It's still milk based, still the same style. And since I don't have space in the kitchen for a pasta machine, we aren't serving it over pasta anymore, we're using spaetzle, a German style dumpling that we boil, shock, and then pan fry in olive to crisp up to order. It's a happy, comforting dish. Also, it's like a half a pound of food - we get people who come in after a night of drinking that just love that dish.
How has the vibe changed from the CBD to the French Quarter?
Well, there's a bigger mix of ages. The CBD crowd was very young and hip. Now, people stop by throughout the day to say hello. There's a window where people can see me working, and people walk by and wave, we see the kids on the schoolbus every day. This is more of an established neighborhood. And I think what we're doing is a nice addition to the neighborhood.
The flow of diners is on a more even keel - we get people in early in the evening through late at night after the theater or going out. It's a different pace than being slammed an hour and a half before a concert or game.
What are some of the challenges of the move?
Well, the physical limitations of the kitchen space is a challenge, but not necessarily in a negative way. It's like adjusting from living in a 3,000 square foot house to a studio apartment. Literally, the kitchen at Sainte Marie was about three times bigger than Meauxbar's. But sometimes limitations present more opportunities to be creative with the space. And there's nowhere to hide - everybody knows what's going on, kind of like when you're cooking at home. It makes things more efficient. Everything runs cleaner and we are kept to using super fresh produce due to lack of storage space.
What is the thing you most want to carry over from Sainte Marie to Meauxbar?
Everything, to me, is hospitality.I'm gonna do everything I can for you, and suggestions are always welcome. It's important to listen to guests. People want to be heard, and they will respect what we are and where we are. The beauty of New Orleans is that there is always some evolution or change at work.
Chef Kristen Essig with her new menu [Photo: Twitter]