What secrets lie beneath the surface of a restaurant menu?
In this latest edition of Eating Between the Lines, we pay a visit to one of the most important restaurants in America, award-winning chef-owner Nina Compton’s Compère Lapin in New Orleans. Read below for a deep dive into the menu from Compton and her team.
The Restaurant: Compère Lapin
Chef Nina Compton and her husband, Larry Miller, opened Compère Lapin to wide critical acclaim in 2015. For Compton, it was her first restaurant and solo venture after working in kitchens that included New York’s Daniel and Miami’s Scarpetta, as well as competing on season 11 of “Top Chef.”
The premise of the restaurant has always been deeply personal. The name refers to a mischievous rabbit of the same name who featured prominently in the Caribbean and Creole folktales Compton heard while growing up in Saint Lucia.
“The menu tells the story of my childhood in the Caribbean,” she says. And that story is that there’s more to Caribbean food than we might think: “When people think of the Caribbean, they think of a hut on the beach serving fried fish or jerk chicken. I wanted to show people we are more than those elements alone.”
This past year has been a tough one. The restaurant, located on the lobby floor of the Old No. 77 Hotel, was closed in March, but reopened in November. It’s now open for limited indoor and outdoor dining. “Things have been like a roller coaster, but I’m so happy to be back,” Compton says. “The pandemic gave me time to rethink what I want to do, how to focus on work/life balance, and how to rethink things to make them better.”
“In the restaurant industry, everything is very touch and go right now,” Compton says. “It’s exhausting.” The physical, not to mention mental and emotional toll that the pandemic has taken on so many is what weighs heavily on her mind. “It’s not just survival of the fittest, but survival of the mentally strong. I think a lot of people feel very helpless.”
But, she says, she wants to remain hopeful, and grateful, especially for her staff. “I have my health, my family’s safe. I wake up every day and I’m able to do what I love. It’s looking at those little things and kind of stepping back a little bit.”
During a recent pre-shift meeting with her team, Compton asked each person to share what they’re thankful for. “A lot of people said their family, their job; some people said their dog. It’s just that constant reminder of stepping back and looking at the way things are — it’s so important for everybody. And I think we need to comfort each other.”
Compère Lapin’s reopening was an opportunity for Compton to introduce new dishes but, above all else, she wanted the food to be comforting. “People go to restaurants to see that friendly bartender, to have that favorite dish of theirs that brings them joy. I think now, more than anything, restaurants are providing that for people.”
1. The Kitchen Collab
Developing the spiced half chicken was a collaborative process, especially in terms of getting just the right sweet and spicy coriander glaze for this dish, says Compton.
Chef Matthew Siliati says that when it comes to researching and developing recipes in the kitchen, the entire staff is trying to find ways to “preserve as much food as we can.” He adds, “Chef Nina has a pretty strong vision, and we do whatever she needs. If Chef Nina asks us to come up with a sauce or a marinade, of course, we will do it, but she generally has a vision for completed dish.”
“If Matthew says it needs more coriander seed for texture and complexity, we’ll tweak it,” adds Compton. “That’s part of learning and growing together. The way I might taste something, someone else might taste differently.”
2. The Local Favorite
Compton wanted to make sure that black-eyed peas made it onto the menu as a way to connect with her guests, especially locals. “It’s something many families here in New Orleans have at home, and we wanted to have it on our menu as well, but presented a bit differently.” Her version includes bacon and crispy shallots. “Everyone has their own sort of origin story with that dish.”
3. The Origin Story
“The curried goat is dear to my heart, because curry is something I grew up with,” says Compton. “When I decided to put this on the menu, I wanted to bring something I enjoyed to my diners. The sweet potato gnocchi was something different, instead of rice.” To create this signature dish, the restaurant goes through approximately 80 pounds of sweet potatoes and 300 pounds of goat each week. The curry itself is a blend of garam masala, curry leaves, cardamom, coriander seeds, ginger, turmeric, and either Scotch bonnet or habañero (“whatever is available”) with coconut milk.
4. The Super Purveyor
Louisiana is known for its shrimp, and Compton seeks out some of its best from Ricky Power of Pistol P Seafood in Metaire, La. “He has the freshest and biggest shrimp,” she says.
Power’s shrimp is on full display in the scialatielli pasta dish, for which Compton makes a “rundown sauce” of roasted shrimp shells, ginger, lemongrass, habañero, tomato, and coconut milk. “It’s a creamy, rich, spicy sauce that is so delicious,” she says, adding, “the way that the sauce slicks onto the noodles is really beautiful.”
Handmade pasta is featured prominently at both Compère Lapin and at Compton’s other restaurant, Bywater American Bistro. “Generally, chef Nina will make the bulk of the pasta, but sometimes she’ll have our pastry chef, Shonda [Cross], make the dough for her, and I will make a gnocchi out of biscuits,” says Siliati.
5. The Sleeper Ingredient
With the intricately arranged snapper collar dish, Compton incorporates a carrot ginger puree and spicy hot honey, and house pickled carrots and soft herbs.
“It’s sad that more restaurants don’t serve collars from the fish they break down because they are delicious,” says Siliati. “Most most people tend to put them in the trash or leave them attached to the bodies, and make a fumet with them still attached.”
6. The Drink Pairing
The Copper Bunny, Compton suggests, pairs well with almost everything on the menu. “It’s just delicious,” she says. As its name suggests, the cocktail is served in a copper bunny and is a heady mix of Absolut Elyx vodka, tequila, ginger, pineapple, jalapeño, and champagne.
7. The Personal Favorite
Compton developed the restaurant’s newest dessert — a chocolate mousse paired with a mango curd, cashew croquant, and a coconut-pineapple sorbet — by pairing two big flavors. “I think mango and chocolate just go very well together,” she says. “The flavors just make sense all together.”
It’s already a favorite of pastry chef Shonda Cross. “I love it so much because the flavors all in one bit create a burst of joy in your mouth,” Cross says. “I suppose that’s the only way to describe the way it makes me feel.”
Daymon Gardner is a New Orleans-based photographer whose work has appeared in Bon Appetit, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Magazine.