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At Purloo, Ryan Hughes elevates Southern food 

The restaurant in the Southern Food & Beverage Museum pulls from many culinary traditions of the South

click to enlarge Chef Ryan Hughes assembles an entree at the food bar at Purloo.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Chef Ryan Hughes assembles an entree at the food bar at Purloo.

With the recent opening of Ashe Cultural Arts Center's Ashe Power House theater (1731 Baronne St.) and the arrival of Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra's new home at the New Orleans Jazz Market (1436 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.), a pre-theater crowd is showing up at Purloo, chef/proprietor Ryan Hughes' new restaurant inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB). Hughes says diners are getting a sort of pre-event performance from the restaurant's open kitchen, which features a horseshoe-shaped 18-seat food bar.

  "We're onstage all the time," Hughes says. He leads the show, running dinner service each night.

  The open kitchen stems from the concept he developed when he first started talking to SoFAB director Liz Williams. The museum fills a cavernous open space, and the only partition between the restaurant and the exhibits are sheer curtains.

  "The open kitchen is like a working exhibit," Hughes says. "Only the dishwashing station is in back. We do butchering in the open kitchen. Museum patrons can approach the food bar and watch or talk to us."

  The menu draws inspiration from across the South, and many are traditional dishes elevated by refined ingredients and techniques. While he waited for the completion of museum construction, Hughes developed his menu in a series of weekly Purloo pop-up dinners (144 in all). A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Hughes has spent the last 14 years cooking in New Orleans, and has toured the South extensively since Hurricane Katrina.

  Hughes received culinary training at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, where he focused on traditional French cooking. Several items on his menu are derived from popular Lowcountry dishes. The restaurant's name refers to a rice and shrimp dish, not unlike jambalaya, prepared by South Carolina's Gullah community, who are descendants of slaves brought to the state.

  She-crab soup is a common Lowcountry dish using crab roe and crab fat. For the version at Purloo, Hughes takes female Louisiana blue crabs from Lake Pontchartrain and separates the crab roe and crab fat. He picks the crabmeat and crab claws and makes a stock out of the remains. The crab stock then becomes a veloute and the finished dish includes the crabmeat, crab claws and a compound butter made with crab fat and roe.

  The restaurant is taking a farm-to-table approach, and Hughes typically works with 10 farmers at a time. He sources whole goats and lamb from Pickett Farms outside Jackson, Mississippi. Hughes originally was interested in the farm's grass-fed lamb, and he uses lamb shanks in an upscale burgoo stew. Burgoo is a traditional stew common in Kentucky, and it can be made with various meats or small animals such as rabbit. Hughes makes Purloo's version with crowder peas, okra and red mustard greens and serves it with buttermilk cornbread.

  To prepare Pickett's goats, Hughes found inspiration in local Vietnamese cuisine. Curried goat is made with lemon grass, coriander, sprouts and local sweet potatoes and served with banh mi bread. It's an example of how Purloo's vision of the South embraces the region's diversity and change.

  The menu also includes fried chicken and catfish, Memphis-style barbecued ribs, house-cured tasso and Gulf seafood and plenty of local produce. There's a short roster of sandwiches, a burger and daily blue plate specials.

  The drinks program also has a Southern focus, but it's almost exclusively regional, says front-of-the-house manager and bar director Mark Schettler.

  "Outside of Cheerwine and mint juleps, the beverage history of the South is pretty much New Orleans and a few whispers around the South," he says.

  Schettler also curated a cocktail list split between classics (an old- fashioned and Ciro's Special, an obscure 1940s tiki drink) and new creations. The beer selection features all regional craft beers, but the wine list reaches around the globe.

  The bar is worthy of museum placement. It's a 1851 Brunswick bar that originally was installed at the West End Hotel and was used by the Lakefront family seafood restaurant Bruning's from the 1860s to 1998, when the restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Georges. It's not used as a standing bar anymore, but the restored relic is a good vantage point to take in the history and changes on display at the restaurant and museum space.

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