Vintage vinyl spins behind a cabinet at Bouligny Tavern, and on recent visits Sam Cooke was in heavy rotation. That seemed fitting, since a look around this gourmet lounge can feel like a perfect setting for some of his classic numbers.
There's a man in evening clothes and a woman adorned in diamond rings. They may not be literally twisting the night away, but the vibe is almost that jovial. People flock to Bouligny Tavern after parties or dinners when they're having too much fun to call it a night but are too dressed up to go just anywhere.
The design here is finely orchestrated and sumptuous, an homage to mid-century modern or a Playboy shoot from the airbrush era. But if the room feels like a time capsule, the food and drink are synchronized to modern trends for casual, small-plate dining and fine cocktails.
Chef John Harris opened Bouligny Tavern next door to his A-list restaurant Lilette, and sous chef Michael Isolani is in charge of the food. The bar has a separate kitchen, but its culinary DNA is intertwined with Lilette. Duck confit, crudo and marrow are hallmarks of Harris' Lilette menu, and they make star turns as choice bar food here. So too does the chef's evident love of quenelles, delicate, spoon-formed loaf shapes used in various preparations, most compellingly as chocolate mousse made beguilingly savory with sea salt, olive oil and crostini.
There are elemental pleasures like raw oysters, a trio of fresh cheeses and the exquisite iberico lomito, hard, ruby-tinted slices of cured pork loin. Duck liver pate with hushpuppies seems an odd couple, but the brown-fried cornmeal had a nice grounding effect on the super-rich spread. Spinach and ricotta gnudi are among the best in town, with a simple, brawny San Marzano tomato sauce.
Sheets of baked kale were too oily, and while frying gnocchi does raise their finger food potential I don't think it improves them, nor does an overdose of truffle oil. The raw fish constantly changes and is always beautifully done. One night, diced salmon was molded with capers and red onion, like a lox plate turned tartare. Another night it was au (a Hawaiian fish resembling tuna that we rarely see in New Orleans) set in a pool of pesto with pickled hearts of palm.
The wine list runs roughly 100 bottles deep, and the prices spike up quickly. At least the money is well spent, because manager Cary Palmer's list should be the envy of many conventional restaurants.
Some conventions do go by the wayside though. Before 7 p.m., guests can generally get a table just by walking in; as the night unfolds, however, it's often standing room only. Servers are professional, but when the room is packed they might not be able to see you through the crowd, much less your empty water glass. Roll with it. You came here to keep the party going anyway.