Last November, there were whispers of a so-called "secret" restaurant on the edge of the 9th Ward. The place doesn't have a listed phone number or website. "New Restaurant N7 is so hipster not even Google can find it," read the headline of one Reddit.com post.
N7 doesn't seem like much of a secret anymore. Most nights when I visited the indoor-outdoor space tucked away on Montegut Street, it was packed with people. The word is out.
N7 isn't a full-fledged restaurant. It's a charming bar that serves food — some of it good, some of it just OK.
Inside the space, which once was a gas station, and before that a horse stable, the cement walls are decorated with vintage art posters and dusty mirrors. A petite distressed copper bar stands in front of a quaint selection of French wines and aperitifs, sake and shochu.
Service is delivered in a laissez-faire manner: friendly, casual and unapologetically inconsistent. The kitchen runs out of dishes frequently, and servers tell diners that meals are not coursed; dishes arrive whenever they are ready.
The spot is named for the highway that snakes through the French countryside, connecting Parisians to the Cote d'Azur, French Riviera. A lengthy selection of canned fish and seafood is a nod to the tinned standbys found in the roadside shacks and taverns that dot the French route. There is an impressive variety, including Portuguese sardines, smoked Washington State oysters, Spanish scorpion fish pate and Surimi baby eels. But because most of the selections are imported, they don't come cheap — most fall between $14 and $19.
The short bistro-style menu is predominantly French, punctuated with Japanese touches, such as delicately breaded pork katsu cutlets and thick pink strips of sake-cured salmon, which arrive atop creamy goat cheese on sturdy pieces of toast and flecked with cilantro. In a classic preparation of steak au poivre, pepper-crusted strips of medium-rare steak are fanned over a mound of potato puree.
It's a simple, straightforward menu, but these aren't overly exciting dishes. They are, however, comforting in their simplicity, which feels appropriate in the casual setting.
The best dishes are the ones in which Japanese and French influences join forces. Plump mussels arrive swimming in garlicky sake-infused broth dotted with scallions. When accompanied by a bouquet of golden french fries and aioli, the dish mirrors classic French comfort fare. The Iwashi sardine tartare is served brimming with onion slivers, capers and scallions. The fatty fish takes well to the brine, matching the salinity with a sweetness that marries the flavors, and the crunch of the capers and onions add texture. It is served with an herb-flecked crusty baguette to help sop up the delicious juices that gather at the bottom of the bowl.
The prime place to cap an evening at N7 is in the courtyard, where rows of pendant lights dangle over the tables, imbuing a touch of romance. On warmer nights, there might be the faint scent of jasmine and a cool breeze, enough to charm almost anyone into visiting this place again.