I'll always remember when I fell in love with collard greens.
It was November 2011, and I was seated at the bar at the French Quarter gastropub Sylvain, and Alex Harrell was helming the kitchen.
Covered in a light sheen, the collards were tender, smoky and surprisingly sweet, but not cloyingly so.
I came across those greens again recently at Angeline, Harrell's excellent new restaurant, which opened in March in the former Stella! space at the Hotel Provincial.
The collards, which exude soft, smoky sweetness with the addition of bacon and raw cane sugar, came hugging Mississippi rabbit Milanese, one of the best items on Harrell's menu of elevated Southern fare.
The dish features a full leg quarter, deboned, pounded and coated with breadcrumbs, herbs and Parmesan. Fried crispy, the thick, dark golden crust gives way to juicy white meat. The rabbit is presented on pillowy spoon bread and topped with a generous dollop of tomato gravy that tastes warm and sweet, like the tomatoes were roasted in sunshine.
Harrell's cooking raises the bar on classical Southern cuisine, but there is something unassuming and personal in many of the dishes at Angeline, a quality that mirrors the restaurant's elegant yet cozy aesthetic. Rust-colored banquettes line the main dining room and dark wooden tables match the thick, exposed beams of the ceiling. Floor-length drapes and whitewashed walls with wainscoting give the space a charming vibe reminiscent of a dinner party at a cozy townhouse.
Bread service begins with buttery Parker House rolls and plump cornbread muffins, the latter of which get an indulgent addition of pork fat in the batter.
For a decadent starter, plump oysters are tucked in a gratin of creamed leeks and mushrooms. The top is dusted with buttery cornbread crumbs and baked until golden brown leaving the inside saline-rich and creamy.
Mussels are served with a bright green, vermouth-scented broth chock full of herbs and rugged hunks of fried bread. While delicious, the briny bivalves are immersed in too much broth and are messy and difficult to share.
Harrell's talents with vegetables extend well beyond collard greens. Cauliflower gets the royal treatment and the crunchy florets taste like they were bathed in brown butter. They are served on a bed of creamy olivade aioli and soft sheep's milk cheese that packs just enough brininess to balance out the richness in the dish.
A soup special of heirloom corn bisque included buttermilk and roasted fennel. The pale marigold- colored soup was dotted with fresh herbs and tasted like summer.
The kitchen appears to be very comfortable with smoke and the qualities it imbues, especially in vegetables. Okra is charred until crispy; eggplant is burnt until the flesh is downright creamy; and smoked carrot puree is almost as velvety as butter.
Most entrees — including the rabbit — are hearty and appear strongly influenced by a Southern palate. Creamy Coosa Valley grits serve as a bed for soft, braised pork cheeks and heritage pork noisette.
The lone vegetarian entree is a lemon grass and chili tofu dish exhibiting strong Asian flavors — and is a welcome surprise. Thick pieces of tofu are seared until crispy, served on a bed of charred okra and summer squash, dressed with a lighter-than-air corn emulsion and peppered with peanuts — offering a nice combination of textures and flavors.
A good deal of attention is paid to regional ingredients, which the restaurant appears to source locally whenever possible. The approach also extends to the bar's simple yet creative cocktail selection. The Promise's Ghost is a refreshing, effervescent drink made with Ponchatoula strawberries, Pimm's No. 1, pisco liqueur and Gruet sparkling wine.
Following an impressive tenure at Sylvain and stints at Bayona and Ralph's on the Park, Harrell is well beyond proving himself as a talented chef. At Angeline, which he named for his mother, Harrell finally has his own canvas. Here, he shows that modern Southern cuisine can be elegant and refined and yet retain a personal, comforting element.