The ambience of old New Orleans was so intense during a recent early dinner at Sylvain that it felt almost scripted. The weather was mild, and as we sat outside in this French Quarter restaurant's narrow, sheltering courtyard we could hear the steam calliope off the riverfront and Dixieland standards from the jazz band in Jackson Square.
On the table before us, however, the only obvious New Orleans link was a rapidly diminishing Sazerac. The rest — seared scallops topped with sprouts, the silken, irregular pappardelle noodles with coarsely ground bolognese sauce, the shredded Brussels sprouts with apples and hazelnuts under a fleece of pecorino — was representative of Sylvain's approach to upscale comfort food.
With its location just steps from the city's tourism nexus — and with the storybook appeal of its building — a menu of New Orleans standards might have been expected at this address. But proprietor Sean McCusker and his business partner, local bar and nightclub owner Robert LeBlanc, had a different idea. McCusker was in New York during the rise of the gastropub, a trend led there by the savagely popular Spotted Pig. He moved to the French Quarter last year convinced that his new neighborhood should have something along the same lines. He and LeBlanc brought in chef Alex Harrell, a protege of chef Gerard Maras, and they opened Sylvain in October 2010.
At its best, the food here is hearty, straightforward and vividly fresh. Plump links of garlic sausage are sliced over cabbage and potato salad. Big, dark chunks of braised beef cheeks make a satisfying send-up of meat and gravy, and the obligatory $15 hamburger is built with a bulging patty on a distinctive roll.
The new restaurant has some consistency issues, however. A delicately prepared redfish was flawless one night as the fish special, but the drum served a few weeks later was badly overcooked. Some dishes are just ill-conceived. Reading "crispy pork shoulder" on this menu activated cravings for a crusty, fatty, salty roast, but what arrived were disks of atomized pork beneath paneed shells. I'd skip the fried eggplant appetizer, which lacks character and is allotted too little aioli to make a difference.
With its bare wood tables, prominent bar and dim lighting, Sylvain can look like a tavern, though it functions better as a conventional restaurant than a place to drink and nosh. The menu doesn't offer much to share around the table, and while there's a robust craft cocktail list and interesting wines, the drink prices show no mercy until you get to joke items like $2 cans of Schlitz.
The building housing Sylvain wasåß fallow for the last few years, and its renovation bears all the character and detail of a true labor of love tempered by an admirable sense of restraint. The grace of the old architecture is the main design element, and it lends a welcome, genuine feel. A bit more age may help distill Sylvain's menu and refine its concept. But already it's clear the place is helping address a niche between fine dining and pub grub that's been neglected in the French Quarter for too long.