Robust or Bust: From farm to kitchen at Maurepas Foods

Bywater restaurant menu focuses on local farmers, products

When an eager young chef walks into a bank to apply for financing to open a new restaurant, concept is usually king: a classic American steakhouse with white tablecloths and tuxedoed service staff. A French brasserie. Gourmet hamburgers and hand-cut Belgian fries. The simpler and more classic, the better.

For Maurepas Foods’ chef and owner Michael Doyle, it wasn’t so easy.

“I got rejected a lot,” he said, with good-humored self-deprecation. “Here I am, 29 years old, a scruffy-looking guy, saying to a banker, ‘Hey, I have this great idea for a cheap, fancy restaurant in the 9th Ward. ...’ It wasn’t a smart pitch.”

But with time and effort, the money eventually came through, as did the concept.

When the restaurant’s graphic designer took a gamble on the slogan, “Purveyors of robust cuisine,” Doyle knew immediately that he’d found his hook, and Maurepas Foods has quickly become a well-loved and rapidly growing addition to the Crescent City dining scene.

Doyle, a Washington, D.C.-area native who has been cooking in New Orleans for 12 years, most notably as sous chef at Dante’s Kitchen, believes that Maurepas Foods’ menu all boils down to the restaurant’s relationship with local farmers and their products.

“In a large sense, this menu exists to keep everyone in business. We have a wide variety of distributors, most of whom I’ve met over the years, the farmers and fishermen, and they introduced me to others, and now we have quite a network,” he said.

“It sort of began as a way to do business with all of these people who I respected and whose products I liked. ... Whatever idea came into our heads, we decided to go with it.”

Hence, the cuisine — which more than lives up to the promise of being “robust” — has evolved naturally and organically from its ingredients, as well as the whims of the chef and his kitchen staff. Influences range from classical French to Korean, Mexican, Italian, German and more, all with an undeniable Southern undercurrent.

“Our tastes definitely tend towards Southern and New Orleans food, since we all have a background cooking in this city and in the South,” Doyle said. “But that said, we mostly cook what we love and what we want to eat. And we have such a cool clientele here, and the price-point is low, so they just go with it, whether it’s goat tacos, a noodle dish or whatever else we come up with.”

A recent visit to Maurepas began, in true New Orleans fashion, with a fried oyster special. The crispy bivalves arrived atop a bed of cabbage salad with basil, Meyer lemon, fennel and green onion, Vermont bleu cheese and a sweet gastrique made from some Cheerwine soda Doyle originally had bought for the bartenders to toy with.

The result was a combination of sweet, savory, crunchy and pungent, “all of those great oysters Rockefeller elements,” Doyle said.

Also as a starter was a simple but fantastic plate of char-grilled broccoli (the chef said, “it stinks up the kitchen, but it’s so tasty!”), tossed with cumquats and a grilled green onion vinaigrette, and cucumbers pickled with ginger and chile peppers.

Next were the aforementioned goat tacos, served simply with pickled green tomatoes and a cilantro harissa sauce, a product of a local goat farm on the Mississippi-Alabama border.

Doyle roasts the entire animal, taking the meat off the bones for tacos and utilizing everything else, from the heads to the organs — for soups, headcheeses and sausages.

In the meat department as well is a not-to-be-missed chicken dish.

Rubbed with a house spice blend and confited in a combination of rendered duck and pork fat, Doyle serves the hindquarter atop a pillow of creamy grits, a slow-poached egg (a riff on the “chicken and egg” theme), and a side of perfectly executed braised greens.

And while the weather is still cold, you’d be best served to order the outstanding shrimp hot pot, a menu item inspired by Asian ingredients Doyle finds at a Vietnamese farmers’ co-op in eastern New Orleans.

“They supply certain herbs and greens we like to use: lemon balm, water spinach, dragon beans and also some really great mint and cilantro,” he said.

A hot, spicy combination of house-fermented kimchi, Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage, radishes and shiitake mushrooms and topped with a generous buttermilk biscuit, this dish is the definition of the term “robust.”

Maurepas also specializes in lovingly crafted cocktails, such as the Gent and the Jackass (smoked paprika simple syrup, lemon juice, peach bitters, bourbon and fresh basil), as well as refreshingly decadent house-made desserts, like the fresh mint chocolate cookie sandwich garnished with tiny cookies and chocolate sauce.

At the end of the day, and the meal, while the concept behind the menu at Maurepas Foods might still be evolving, one thing is clear: Food this interesting and this good is worth coming back for.

And you can take that to the bank.

Maurepas Foods, 3200 Burgundy St. in the Bywater. Open Thursday through Tuesday (closed on Wednesdays), 11 a.m. to midnight. Phone: (504) 267-0072.