New Orleans’ SoBou offers inventive food, cocktails ‘South of Bourbon’

At SoBou in the W Hotel, intriguing and exotic things are afoot.

Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez, along with Bar-Chef Abigail Gullo, depart from traditional French Quarter fare in favor of cuisine and cocktails that are thoughtful and tasty, but also embody a refreshing wink-and-a-smile attitude.

When asked to describe the fare, Chef Gonzalez calls it “New Orleans street food-inspired cuisine with a Caribbean twist.” The chef’s upbringing in Puerto Rico shines throughout the menu, while his time spent cooking in the Crescent City — and attending to all of our culinary traditions — is hardly thrown by the wayside. It’s a fascinating mix of influences.

A recent visit to SoBou started with the Chef’s signature “yellowfin tuna cones” ($8), two adorable miniature waffle cones filled with a pineapple yellowfin ceviche and topped with a house-made basil avocado ice cream and a sprinkle of toasted coconut. Best enjoyed in a single mouthful, it’s a wonderfully unique starter.

“It’s almost like taking a trip to the Caribbean in one bite, my friend,” Gonzalez said.

Next came a simple summer salad of fresh local tomatoes and beans.

“Right now we’re getting all of our produce out of Covey Rise Farms (in Tangipahoa Parish), and they’re getting in these beautiful yellow and red Creole tomatoes,” the chef said. “I pair those with heirloom baby tomatoes and baby limas, crowders, and field peas, then toss them in a basil-lemon vinaigrette and top the dish with shaved Manchego cheese and a drizzle of aged balsamic.”

Gonzalez’s interest in street food was clear in the next pair of snacks, crispy boudin balls with Creole mustard ($4), as well as alligator sausage corn dogs ($5, available during happy hour).

“The cool thing about these corn dogs is that, when we take them out of the fryer, we dip them in a ghost pepper guava jelly, so it’s hot and sweet all at the same time,” he said.

This is where things get truly interesting at SoBou. Ghost peppers, for the uninitiated, are also known as the Naga Bhut Jolokia, of India, and are among the hottest chile peppers known — about 400 times as hot as Tabasco sauce, according to the Scoville heat scale, which rates such things. And the chef is obviously fascinated with them.

Take the next dish, which would seem very traditional — a small slab of fork-tender, slow-smoked baby back pork ribs ($12) — if it weren’t paired with a Caribbean slaw and ghost pepper cotton candy.

The ghost pepper makes another appearance in “pinchos” ($10), Puerto Rican-style shrimp and tasso skewers served on a slice of pineapple marinated for 24 hours in a mixture of rum, brown sugar in molasses, as well as a chimichurri sauce and a Crystal hot sauce aioli.

And the pepper even finds its way into dessert, in a sweet and spicy peach mojito sorbet paired with candied ginger, crispy fried plantains, and a cherries jubilee coulis served in a halved coconut. The coolness of the ice cream pairs well with the pepper’s heat.

The inventive food isn’t the only thing to keep an eye out for at SoBou. Bar-Chef Abigail Gullo, a rising star on the local spirits scene, serves up a beguiling array of house cocktails, classic drinks and elaborate concoctions often invented on a whim. You’ll also find an imposing ice block chilling behind the bar, so that bartenders can shape their “rocks” by hand with an ice cleaver.

One of the house specialties is the Lady Ella ($8), named after Ella Brennan. (The Brennan’s Commander’s Palace is the stately older sibling to SoBou’s irreverent teen sister.) Said Gullo, “I read somewhere a quote that said, ‘A culture loses all of its civilization without an aperitif hour.’ It’s so important. So this is a classic aperitif cocktail, a kind of twist on a champagne cocktail. I rinse the glass with homemade pomegranate syrup, add Lillet Rose and a dash of lavender bitters, then top the glass with Prosecco and a lemon twist.”

The “Phil Collins” ($10), a Tom Collins variant featuring barrel-aged Dutch Bols Genever and citrus, has a unique presentation. According to Gullo, “This is served with a song; that’s its garnish. So I tell all of my staff to please deliver it while singing a song ... even if it’s just that famous drum solo from ‘In the Air Tonight.’ ”

Why Dutch Bols Genever for Phil Collins? Abigail smiles: “The idea is that Phil has been married so many times that, now, when he goes out on dates, he always goes Dutch.”

SoBou is winning over Big Easy diners and visitors alike with its combination of playful cuisine and refined but relaxed attitude, but Chef Gonzalez is ready to take things to the next level.

“I’m ready to evolve to the next phase of SoBou, that’s for sure,” he says. “I’m looking to bring in some different flavors, international flavors, but still keep it somewhat Creole-ized. Whatever we do, we have to bring it home. We don’t want to forget where we came from!”