It was always fun to watch pleasant surprise register with first-time customers of Que Crawl, the purple catering truck often parked outside Tipitina's during shows. They seemed to expect typical late-night, vending-cart fare and instead found grit fries, pulled pork in Vietnamese-style French loaves or boudin balls with home-made aioli. Que Crawl proprietor Nathaniel Zimet is still surprising people, but now it's at his casual Uptown bistro, Boucherie, away from the floodlights and grinding generator of his catering truck.
Zimet always said his intention with Que Crawl was to earn enough money to open his own restaurant. He also earned a reputation for combining Southern comfort food, Asian vegetables, French technique and creative zeal. Boucherie is a much fuller realization of his approach, with original dishes presented in a casual upscale setting. At the same time, Zimet prices entrees substantially lower than the local norm for this level of quality and service, making Boucherie among the town's best fine-dining bargains.
An example of Boucherie's style is the mussels, a common dish but done differently here. They're cooked with collard greens, giving the murky broth the bright flavor of slurp-worthy pot likker and the depth of rendered bacon fat. The dish only includes a handful of mussels, which also is indicative of Boucherie's style. Most portions are adequate but not large.
One exception is brisket with fries, which is as hearty and filling as a meat and potato dish should be. The brisket is fatty and smoky, moist but textured, liberally covered in an assertive though overpowering barbecue sauce, done in the vinegary style of the chef's native North Carolina. This sort of dish need not be expensive, and at $13, it isn't.
Compare that barbecue brawn with an appetizer that floats lumps of crisp duck confit in an invigorating, lime-touched broth tangled with soba noodles, and you have a sense of the menu's range.
There are excellent grit cakes with smoky-sauced shrimp, crisp-skinned salmon over spaetzle with a disappointingly dull beet emulsion and a few other seafood dishes, but Zimet's first love seems to be pork. He shapes and sears strands of it into a cake the size and density of filet mignon. Ribs get more flavor from the actual pork than sauce or smoke, and bacon makes it into chocolate brownies, where it tastes more like tiny dots of chewy salt than discernable pork.
The lunch menu is identical, with the addition of a few po-boys. A pulled-pork sandwich from the Que Crawl repertoire is as good as ever, and a duck confit version also benefits from airy, crisp Vietnamese-style bread.
The wine list is diverse and bargain-oriented, with no bottle more than $40 (and none from France). The bar offers carafes of draft beer as dressed-up pitchers. Lunch is not busy, but at dinner, reservations are usually necessary even on early weeknights.
Other restaurants have opened with similar user-friendly prices that turn out to be introductory offers after the reservation book starts filling up. So far, Boucherie has managed to put out a winning menu and position itself as a genuine bargain. If things stay this way, we can thank Zimet for yet another pleasant surprise.