What secrets lie beneath the surface of a restaurant menu?
The Restaurant: Bywater American Bistro
If Nina Compton’s first restaurant, Compère Lapin, tells the story of her childhood in the Caribbean, her second restaurant, Bywater American Bistro, is the story of her newfound home, New Orleans.
General manager and sommelier Rosie Jean Adams, who’s been with the restaurant since it opened in 2019, says Bywater is known for its “relaxed, accepting, and casual” ambience. But the food is really special, she adds. “I feel like you can come as you are, even if you’re just in your pajamas, and just get a comforting bowl of spaghetti. Or if you want, you can also get a five-course meal from this James Beard award-winning chef, too.”
Compton says she is grateful for locals who continue to return to Bywater American Bistro time and again, and she’s keeping safety top of mind. “We’re just trying to do the best we can to keep our staff safe, but also keep our guests safe, and create memories in this dark time.”
Bywater briefly closed from March to June, but since it reopened, Compton has been busy adding new items to the menu, as well as devising a new French-influenced menu just for Bywater’s outdoor dining yurt village. The restaurant is currently open for indoor dining with limited capacity, as well as outdoor dining.
But even with the new menus, the stories still distinguish the food at Bywater. These are some of them:
1. Memories from Home
The mango and avocado salad is inspired by a street food snack that Compton grew up with back in Saint Lucia. “It was pickled golden apple or green mango in sauce,” says Compton. “Vendors would sell the underripe fruit in a spicy pickling liquid as a snack, and this is something I would enjoy on my way home from school.” For her take, Compton dresses the mangoes and avocados in a habañero vinegar with a touch of garlic.
2. Presentation Matters
You’ve likely had a New England clam chowder, or maybe even a Manhattan-style one to boot, but neither compares to the conch chowder that Compton serves at Bywater. For one thing, there are no clams, but plenty of conch. “This conch chowder is very personal to chef, using ingredients that are very Caribbean in nature,” says Bywater American Bistro chef Phil Whitmarsh. “It’s a classic chowder, with a Saint Lucian accent.” And then there’s the way it’s served: poured tableside into your bowl for maximum effect.
3. Picture Perfect
To make the stunning, flower-like tendrils for the ricotta and tête de moine tart, Compton uses a cheese curler, or girolle, for the desired effect. Underneath them, you’ll find a creamy bed of ricotta.
Adams suggests pairing this starter with a glass of Kékfrankos from Hungary. This medium-bodied red wine has savory characteristics like sage, rosemary, and even Kalamata olives. And it pairs well with the roasted pork belly, too.
4. New For Now, But Here to Stay
Compton believes the crowd-pleasing roasted octopus — a new addition to menu since the restaurant reopened during the pandemic — has major staying power, and she’s not alone. Adams says it’s her favorite dish on the menu. “The octopus is cooked just perfectly. I know sometimes when I eat octopus elsewhere, it’s rubbery, but this one is just amazing.”
Getting that perfect texture takes time: The octopus is poached in salt water for 45 minutes and then covered in plastic wrap to pressurize and tenderize it as it cools in its own liquid. “That pressurizing in the plastic wrap makes a difference,” says Compton.
And according to Whitmarsh, it’s the balance of flavors — the smokiness of the potato puree and the sweetness of the cherry tomato confit — that makes the dish a keeper.
5. The Origin Story
The curried rabbit, which has been on the menu since Bywater American Bistro opened in 2018, is an homage to the curried goat you’ll find at Compton’s other restaurant, Compère Lapin. And like that dish, it’s deeply personal to her because it’s a dish she grew up eating in Saint Lucia. The curry base here is also similar to the one for the goat at Compère Lapin: a heady mix of garam masala, curry leaves, cardamom, coriander seeds, ginger, turmeric, and either Scotch bonnet or habañero with coconut milk. Unlike that dish, however, here it features rabbit instead of goat.
“Their name [at the other restaurant] is ‘brother rabbit’ — they can’t really serve rabbits there!” says Adams.
6. It’s a Process
One dish Compton brought with her to New Orleans from her days spent in Miami is her signature tuna ham. “It’s something I tried to evolve over time,” she says. And making it is a minimum two-day process: “The tuna is cured with salt, black pepper, garlic, and clove, and air dried for 48 hours and then thinly sliced.”
For Whitmarsh, the process of cleaning the massive tuna loin, cutting it just perfectly, and curing it is both calming and relaxing — an ideal way to begin a day of prep work in the kitchen.
When it arrives at your table, the tuna is so thinly sliced and so pink that it resembles slices of ham. “The saltiness of the tuna with the creamy, fatty avocado, marinated tomatoes, and the rye croutons with tomato really make it a complete dish with great flavors and textures,” says Compton.
7. The Sleeper Hits
Whenever general manager Adams has a chance to recommend dishes to undecided diners, she usually suggests these two sleeper hits: the cabbage salad and the spaghetti.
“I think people aren’t used to being excited about a cabbage salad,” she says, “but this one has more of an Asian influence, with jerk-spiced peanuts, puffed rice, fish sauce, and soft herbs like cilantro, parsley, and mint. That’s a dish I do find I have to direct guests to, and when they do get it, they’re really thrilled with it.”
Compton has yet to make her way to Asia, but she says her love of Thai papaya salad at her favorite Thai restaurants inspired her to create this dish, where cabbage stands in for green papaya.
And the spaghetti, Adams says, might look basic, but it’s anything but. “It’s very classic, with tomato, basil, and Parmigiano, but it’s the best bowl of spaghetti you will ever have. A lot of people come back to the restaurant just for that.”
Not surprising, considering Compton, the former executive chef at Scarpetta Miami Beach, still makes the majority of pasta for both restaurants each and every day. That translates to anywhere from 200 to 350 pounds of fresh pasta each week. “It’s therapeutic,” she says.
8. If You Can Take the Heat
If your idea of comfort food involves something spicy, the jerk chicken is made for you. Compton developed it as a new addition the menu after the restaurant reopened. It’s a whole half of a chicken rubbed with jerk spices that’s brined and marinated for 48 hours. The jerk paste itself is a blend of allspice, Scotch bonnet, cinnamon, and brown sugar that’s cooked slowly with onions. Every half chicken is roasted to order to maintain its juiciness. The chicken is served with semolina dumplings filled with lima beans and carrots.
“It’s this comforting, homestyle dish that I think, right now, people really want because everyone is stressed about everything,” Adams says.
To pair with this dish, Adams generally suggests a glass of the yellow Muscat from Slovenia because it’s so light and refreshing. “It’s very aromatic, like a floral white wine, but it finishes dry. The notes are fruit forward, like passionfruit and lychee, making it pair well with any of our spicier dishes.”
9. The Drink Pairing
“The most food-friendly cocktail we have right now is the Masquerade Dance,” says Adams. “We’re all wearing masks, so it seems a little appropriate now.” The cocktail features a Thai chile-infused Tequila with housemade hibiscus syrup and lime juice, and on the rim of the glass you’ll find it dusted with salt and pink peppercorns. “It’s like a fruity margarita that’ll remind you of a drink you’d have if you were visiting an island.”
Daymon Gardner is a New Orleans-based photographer whose work has appeared in Bon Appetit, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Magazine.