Dishes with a bit of a drawl jump off the menu at High Hat Cafe — Delta-style tamales wrapped neatly in cornhusks, a pimento cheese plate, homey sides of beans and greens and the restaurant's centerpiece: fried catfish with hushpuppies, practically the fish and chips of cotton country.
But before you get the idea High Hat is a Southern outpost in this Creole city, you have to try the gumbo, an immensely satisfying, dark, rich, chicken and andouille version, or a racy, plump shrimp remoulade many local bistros would do well to emulate.
High Hat is a bit of a hybrid — part Deep South diner and part casual New Orleans cafe. With its vintage ambience, local sourcing and back-to-basics cooking, it's also in line with today's old-is-new aesthetic. This makes it feel very much at home along the resurgent Freret Street commercial stretch.
High Hat Cafe opened in June as a partnership between Chip Apperson and Adolfo Garcia, who opened the pizzeria Ancora next door on the same night. Garcia's successful track record at RioMar and a Mano ensured the place would get noticed. But while he makes significant contributions here, Apperson is running the ship. Apperson is a native of Memphis, Tenn., one of several cities where he's run restaurants, and his appreciation for Southern food informs half the hybrid equation at High Hat.
Apperson also directed the renovation, creating a straight-lined, mellow-hued dining room that could stand in for a classic Southern eatery on a courthouse square. The new bar, shiny with reclaimed cypress, is a comfortable perch to watch a game with a pimento cheeseburger and a beer. Or with wine, since the short list here is well-chosen and inexpensive.
The catfish is respectable, though the batches I tried were thicker than the razor-cut ideal many prefer. At the other end of the spectrum, there's whole fried catfish, but I can't recommend it. The batter had trouble staying on, and the work of negotiating bones took away the simple pleasure of popping bits of crisp fish into the mouth.
While the menu is short and straightforward, there are more options thanks to specials, the abundant use of local produce and the clear evidence of creative hands in the kitchen, namely those of chef Jeremy Wolgamott. This looks like a place where you'd find a meatloaf special, though here it will be banded in bacon and topped with a jammy, smoky sweet glaze. And the BLT? Lamb bacon and roasted tomatoes set it apart.
As the weather has turned crisp, the watermelon and crabmeat salads that were such sweet relief in the summer are giving way to more autumnal offerings, like one with peppery Asian greens, apples, toasted pecans and the nutty purr of manchego. And as Louisiana citrus has begun showing up, its bright tang is as evident in the icebox pie as it is in the cocktails, which aren't too fussy and pack an appropriate wallop.