Many a good night out calls for food, music and drink along the way. Yet it's the rare New Orleans establishment that can handle more than two of these components really well at any one time. Since opening in August, however, Three Muses has ably kept all the plates spinning with a bar, a tapas menu and a jazz bandstand — all inside a tiny, beautifully renovated Frenchmen Street storefront.
Three Muses requires a special degree of cooperation from its clientele. You can't expect to jitterbug across the room if the music moves you — there's no space between the tables and the standing bar crowd — and you can't expect to settle in for a big meal with normal table service. Everyone orders at the bar, sometimes over the heads of people perched along it.
Chef Daniel Esses came to Three Muses from a fitting warm-up round for the format here. A veteran of local restaurant kitchens — most recently the Marigny Brasserie — he was catering tapas at wine tastings when Christopher Starnes and jazz singer Sophie Lee invited him to join their venture at Three Muses.
Tapas are in sync with the attention span of a place that is as much a bar and music venue as a restaurant. Goat cheese and eggplant bruschetta, flaky empanadas stuffed with rabbit, and lobster egg rolls are good to pass around a group. More complex dishes seem like entrees in miniature, like rare duck breast over crisp-shelled risotto cakes or flank steak stacked on a block of buttery potato gratin with as many layers as a phone book. The pork belly convinced me a tapas portion is the right size for this eminently fatty dish, and with sweet apple chutney over the top and burly sesame pancakes beneath, it seemed like a complete dish.
House-made pastas appear in multiple dishes and bolster some of the abundant vegetarian options, like squash ravioli or rigatoni with garlic and caper sauce. A new cannelloni creation, with lumps of crab and Swiss chard rolled in delicate sheets, is among the more original and inspired combinations I've tasted lately.
A few of the dishes are better in theory than on the table. Salty feta sounds like a great topping for the crisp, hand-cut fries, but the two don't bond, leaving you plucking at the cheese. The most substantial items are multi-tray Korean kimchee platters with either bulgogi-style beef or tofu. These are solid, but I wish they came with lettuce to wrap all their components, a traditional approach that would make things easier to manage.
Three Muses is easy to love and refreshingly different from other spots along Frenchmen. Esses constantly changes the wide-ranging menu, but that's not the only variable to keep regular visits here interesting. With different acts on the tiny stage, the varied crowds they attract and the ebb and flow of Frenchmen Street all in the mix, it can seem like a different Muse is in charge of the place from night to night. Roll with it, and you'll be in for a delicious and entertaining evening.