A couple times a week, the newly-minted James Beard winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef Kelly Fields slips into Bywater American Bistro (BABs), grabs a seat at the bar, sips a bottled negroni, and orders what she calls “super-cravable and nourishing” jerk chicken rice.
A three-year old neighbor also heads in each week with her parents to slurp silky strands of the restaurant’s universally appealing spaghetti pomodoro, a “ruddy, buttery, acidic-sweet” dish that marries the skills of a top chef with the comfort of your mother’s spaghetti.
Bywater American Bistro is very much a big-deal restaurant that glitters on the national stage, with the awards to prove it. But as these and other regulars would attest, Eater New Orleans’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year is also a neighborhood spot serving owners Nina Compton and Miller’s actual neighbors (they live in a condo just upstairs from the restaurant) and their community (which happens to include a bunch of chefs and restaurateurs).
Located in a large brick factory-turned-condo building, Bywater American Bistro stands right across the train track boundary between the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, just past the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) campus and steps from the river. Nearby, candy-colored Victorian doubles, Creole cottages, Greek revivals, and Italianate townhouses dot a neighborhood that was largely working class until after Katrina, when the neighborhood grew popular with creative types, a transformation that sparked controversy. If NOCCA is like the Bywater’s front door, Bywater American Bistro is like its kitchen, dining room, living room, and water cooler all rolled into one.
Miller manages Bywater American Bistro and Compere Lapin, the first restaurant he and James Beard Award-winning wife Nina Compton opened in New Orleans. At the former, the couple partnered with Compere’s sous chef Levi Raines (recently named a 2019 Eater Young Gun), to run the kitchen at the bistro, while Compton and Miller spend time in both restaurants.
In another life, the restaurant’s building, known as the Rice Mill Lofts, housed the largest rice mill in North America. Acknowledging that, the menu includes an entire section of rice and grains, including pastas and a farro risotto with Maitake mushrooms. It’s a simple thing, really, but it inserts the restaurant into the building’s (and the neighborhood’s) narrative, marking the move from industrial factory to a dining destination.
Originally from St. Lucia, Compton herself was searching for her place at the New Orleans table just a few years ago, when she decided to move from Miami to New Orleans with Miller to open Compere Lapin in the CBD’s Old No. 77 Hotel. Raines also moved from Miami to work as Compton’s sous chef.
She searched for connections, naming Compere for a mischievous rabbit in a Caribbean folktale that also makes appearances in Louisiana lore. If her success in finding her place is obvious in one dish, it’s in a spicy goat curry served over sweet potato gnocchi, combining her Caribbean roots and her love of making pasta with an iconic Southern staple. She wasn’t sure how the dish would go over since goat isn’t common in New Orleans, but it became the most popular dish on the menu and she now goes through 300 pounds of goat each week. These dishes, forging connections between the Caribbean and the Crescent City, helped ignite a conversation about the deeper, older Caribbean roots of New Orleans cuisine. Compton had successfully pulled up a seat at the New Orleans table.
With Bywater American Bistro, she’s setting it. It’s a restaurant that could only come from a chef completely at home; an idea that’s most obvious in its name, which stands in contrast to her first restaurant’s name. Unlike Compere Lapin, it doesn’t conjure images of a folkloric, French-speaking rabbit, and it doesn’t glorify Nina Compton herself. Instead, the name puts the place first. That was the most important part of naming the restaurant, according to Compton. Essentially, she was marketing her neighborhood.
Compared to other areas of town, the Bywater was “a little starved in terms of restaurants,” according to Compton. “For us, when we’re off, where do we eat? You go to Bacchanal; you go to Paladar; Pizza D; Red’s. It’s very limited.” So, Compton decided to cater to people “who want to come and have spaghetti pomodoro three times a week.”
It’s almost impossible to imagine a brand new spot from a big-name chef becoming a great neighborhood bistro, the kind with sense of place and a connectedness to history, so quickly. A “prototypical” great neighborhood restaurant “is neither just a great restaurant nor a neighborhood restaurant, or even simply the overlap of greatness and neighborhoodliness. It’s something more complex and fluid. A Great Neighborhood Restaurant must be great per se, but it also must be harmonious in its relationship to where it lives,” according to chef and restaurateur Andrew Carmellini, whom Raines incidentally worked for at The Dutch in Miami.
More than that: The most important restaurants are always rooted in sense of place. It’s hard to define, but sense of place is usually reserved for older restaurants complete with their own histories and stories. But is it possible for a new restaurant to ever have this rootedness or harmony? Can a new restaurant ever be important in this way on the outset?
At Bywater American Bistro, Raines and Compton decided that they’d put a dark roux on the menu, but it wouldn’t be in a gumbo. Instead, it forms the base for an oyster gravy served over jasmine rice and topped with fried Louisiana oysters. Local staple Crystal hot sauce is worked into an ethereal hollandaise that blankets a steamed snapper. New Orleans is present on the menu, but not in ways you’d expect.
Compton is as much a weaver as she is a cook, spinning together old and new, interlacing her background with New Orleans history, combining the aspirations of a celebrity chef with the rootedness of a neighborhood bistro, allowing world-class food and service to exist with a warmth most often found in someone’s home, weaving an existential question into a modest restaurant name (What is American food?).
In fact, nearly everything she does at Bywater American Bistro feels like it’s part of a conversation about time and place and tradition and innovation that’s taking place entirely through the language of food. She says that at Compere Lapin, people often ask for rice with the goat curry she serves over sweet potato gnocchi, but there’s no rice anywhere else on that menu so it’s a substitution she can’t make.
So, the bistro responds by serving its curry over rice, which makes sense given that it’s in a former rice mill. There’s no rabbit on the menu at Compere Lapin, but BABs cheekily serves a rabbit curry in direct response to its sister restaurant’s most popular dish.
Lots of newer restaurants try to be harmonious with New Orleans, relying on design tricks to do so. At Bywater, there is no manufactured nostalgia. There are no flea market tchotchkes or vintage rice manufacturing equipment as inconsequential reminders of the past. Just inside the front doors, there’s a small shelf filled with a few carefully chosen objects and books: a dented Eater Award soup can trophy for Eater NOLA’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year win and a copy of Sarah Roahen’s Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, a proclamation as much as a reading suggestion.
The success of Bywater is as much about the spaghetti pomodoro (“usually a safety-net choice for an Italian restaurant’s most finicky customers. Not here,” according to restaurant critic Bill Addison) as it is the way Miller and his team run the front of the house, making every diner, from a James Beard Award-winning pastry chef to an energetic three-year old with red sauce on her face, feel equally at home while pouring soups tableside in jeans and maintaining the standards of a fine dining restaurant.
It’s quite possible that Bywater American Bistro will live long enough to become the kind of restaurant with its own stories and history -- at least Miller is planning on it. “I can’t wait until [the three-year old regular] starts coming here on dates.”