Patois sits several blocks off any main thoroughfare in its neighborhood near Audubon Park. Even without a high-visibility location, however, word has spread about the new, upscale restaurant and a well-groomed crowd has been finding it in droves. The new design is beautiful, and the whole place exudes the luster of a well-polished antique even if the paint job hasn't even seen its first Mardi Gras yet. The bar itself " a survivor from the Norby's era " is already developing its own little upscale cocktail scene as diners linger late.
But most of all, the buzz around Patois is about chef Aaron Burgau's cuisine. The central theme appears to be regional Louisiana but the dishes have so many side trips and influences from Italian, French and Spanish cooking that the menu defies neat classification. The end result is something refreshing and familiar all at once. That's because Burgau and his kitchen staff hone in on classic flavors, use evidently pristine ingredients and execute with the precision of artisans rather than the flair of showmen.
My favorite dish is a huge pork chop that is smoked and stuffed with house-made Cajun boudin. The surface glistens and emits the heavy, breathy aroma of rustic cooking cutting through its layers of firm meat to moist, spicy boudin is like discovering a Russian nesting doll of pork flavors. A close second is fettuccine with clams and a tiny dice of pancetta. The housemade noodles are so thin they seem transparent and get a light basting of broth, roasted tomato, fennel and lots of black pepper. The tiny, thumbnail-sized clams are properly chewy and briny and are generously scattered about the dish in their pearl-gray shells.
Meals here start with buttery, flaky brioche rolls, which arrive piping hot in the decorative clay pots in which they were baked. Butter is beside the point with these, which most people just tear up and pop into their mouths faster than they mean to.
A 'vegetarian plate" appetizer changes weekly and is always worth a look. One example was a golden bun with the texture of a croissant that was filled with a nicely sour, melting triple creme. Another had thin tempura-fried oyster mushrooms coated so delicately that the mushroom texture came right through the crackling batter.
Gnocchi make a wonderful appetizer, with sage, brown butter and wild mushrooms enhancing their earthy warmth and flakes of salty, intense Reggiano Parmigiano cutting through. The little potato dumplings don't melt in the mouth so much as blossom. Another appetizer of large roasted shrimp had a nice bite from preserved lemon, but seemed a little lost under a dry coat of breadcrumbs.
The most intriguing appetizer is gabure, a traditional French country soup that seems like a cousin to minestrone minus the pasta. It has an herb-flecked broth with firm white beans, carrots and an arugula pesto, and Burgau adds little scraps of pork belly so fat they float on the surface. This is a soup for a chilly night.
With other successful entrees like a panko-coated rabbit as tender as veal and a lean but luscious roasted duck breast, the menu definitely favors meat over seafood. But the fish of the night described on the specials board is often the most enticing entrée, and that was the case with a wahoo dish served recently. The dense, meaty fish was grilled perfectly and gilded with a light dressing tasting of ginger and a little lemongrass while wilted pea sprouts lent a soft crunch and a smear of guacamole added a buttery, cool sensation. A scoop of nutty, green, jasmine rice and toast points spread with minced, highly-seasoned shrimp completed the most intricate and nuanced dish I've had here.
Desserts seem especially tempting. A chocolate pumpkin doberge hit fundamental autumnal flavors with layers of mellow baked pumpkin melding with the rich, dense chocolate. Tiny fried apple pies were like gourmet versions of the McDonald's dessert but came into their own when mixed with sides of sea salt caramel and vanilla ice cream.
An important caveat about Patois is that when the place fills up, the rooms become very noisy and cramped. One night, we were pinched between the conversation from the table on our right and the out-stretched Perlis slacks of the guy at the table on our left. But what one person remembers as loud and claustrophobic can also be described as lively and cozy if you're in the right mood. Eating Burgau's food, it's hard not to be in the right mood.