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Review: Purloo 

Ryan Hughes’ Southern cuisine ranges from Louisiana to Lowcountry

click to enlarge Chef Ryan Hughes presides over Purloo's open kitchen.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Chef Ryan Hughes presides over Purloo's open kitchen.

At Purloo, crispy hushpuppies decorate a salad dressed with pickled Vidalia onions. a Southern-style charcuterie board includes pimiento cheese and boiled peanuts, and Louisiana strawberries come draped over a slice of sugary buttermilk chess pie.

  Chef and owner Ryan Hughes is a tenured New Orleans chef who ran a longtime pop-up under the same name before opening Purloo. He is trained in classical French cooking techniques, but at his restaurant inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, it's his love affair with the South that wins.

  The yawning, industrial space is cool and airy during the daytime, a nice spot to escape the midday heat and grab a quick lunch. At night, the elevated ceilings raise the acoustics by several bars, and the space gets animated quickly. The best seat to observe the action is at the wraparound dining bar surrounding the restaurant's open kitchen.

  A long, dark wooden bar provides an old-timey, saloonlike feel that seems appropriate given the proximity to some of the museum's artifacts, which are separated from the restaurant by a sheer flowing curtain that barely kisses the floor.

  The museum space is as appropriate as any for Purloo, which is not just a New Orleans restaurant, it's a distinctly Southern restaurant. Its name refers to a rice dish and stems from the South Carolina Gullah community that is said to have originated it.

  Delta corn tamales pay homage to the classic Mississippi bastion of comfort food. Delicate corn husks unfold to reveal tender, steamed cornmeal topped with deep red crawfish gravy. The dish is sprinkled with feta cheese and slivers of green olive, which add a salty element that complement the sweetness in the gravy and the plump crawfish tails.

  She-crab soup, that creamy low-country staple, arrives drizzled with Madeira and tastes buttery yet somehow light at the same time, faintly reminiscent of the sea. Several Louisiana blue crab claws submerged in the bisque offer a welcome surprise.

  Golden pan-seared drum is flaky, moist and cooked so the firm white flesh separates in delicate sheets, soaking up the surrounding sauce. An accompanying artichoke barigoule — a traditional French technique of braising artichokes in white wine, olive oil and broth — adds a refined touch. The fish is served with grits flavored with cardamom, and the spice's powerful aromatics are a daring choice with the fish, but the combination succeeds, complementing the light sweetness of the drum.

  At lunchtime, a cornmeal- and spice-crusted catfish fillet fills a crusty pistolette and is dressed with creamy Mississippi "comeback" sauce, juicy beefsteak tomatoes and red cabbage coleslaw. The ingredients coalesce to form the perfect fried fish sandwich: the spicy-crusted catfish remains juicy, while the vinegar and acid play along with the creamy dressing.

  Curried goat stew, also served at lunch, packs strong Asian flavors, a nod to Vietnamese culinary influences in New Orleans.

  The goat, sourced from Pickett Farms near Jackson, Mississippi, is tender and imbues a deep savory flavor with a touch of warm heat at the end of each bite. Paired with local sweet potatoes, the stew is flavored with lemon grass and coriander, served with crusty banh mi and topped with fresh bean sprouts — a fresh element that adds texture and cools some of the spicy heat.

  Some dishes fare better than others. A salad of herb-roasted beets topped with giardiniera tasted too pickled and would have benefited from something to balance the brine. A buttermilk cheese straw sat atop the vegetables — finishing a beautiful plate — but tasted stale and didn't add much to the dish.

  An otherwise excellent hanger steak comes with shiitake mushroom and cheddar spoon bread that packs a decent amount of flavor, but was dry. It was a small distraction given the otherwise excellent accoutrements of glistening, garlicky baby bok choy and crispy, beer-battered onion rings.

  While an evening spent at Purloo may feel like a culinary voyage across the South, dessert time is a welcome trip home. Order sweet rice calas — dusted with powdered sugar and served with chicory cafe au lait pot de creme — and there will be no doubt that you are back in New Orleans.

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