St. Lawrence offers haven for the hungry with pub food in the French Quarter

Owners target late-night eaters

With the abundant concern about our city’s “food deserts” -- urban areas with little access to markets and the fresh ingredients necessary to maintain a healthy, nutritious diet -- most might be surprised to find that there’s another kind of food desert in New Orleans, and it’s in the place you’d least expect it: the French Quarter.

That’s right, the epicenter of bars and restaurants, in a town lauded worldwide for its bars and restaurants, becomes a place devoid of hearty, thoughtful plates past a certain point in the evening.

While the drinking establishments keep the party going for late-night revelers, most French Quarter eateries -- especially those with the kind of creative menus adored by the food-obsessed -- have long since served their last guest.

This phenomenon was not lost on Jeff James and Brendan Blouin, owners of St. Lawrence on North Peters Street. The restaurant, named after the patron saint of cooks, has become one of the Vieux Carre’s newest and buzziest spots, and its proprietors made sure from the start to keep their kitchen rolling strong until 2 a.m. every night.

Said James, “The concept came from the fact that you have so many restaurants down here, and so many people working in them, so we decided to stay open late. There’ve been so many times for me, personally, where I’ve gotten off work in restaurants in the Quarter over the years, and there simply weren’t a lot of food options. You can go and get a po-boy, or you can get a slice of pizza, a gyro, something like that, and that’s it.

“So, after 11 o’clock at night, about 80 percent of our customers are wearing a waiter’s uniform or chef pants. So, in a way, it’s kind of giving back to the industry that brought me to where I am.”

The space had changed hands and themes numerous times in the past, having been several sports bars, a Rue de la Course coffee shop, and a Voodoo BBQ. After James and Blouin acquired it, their next challenge was to find a chef equal to the task of bringing their own concept to life.

Enter the appropriately named Caleb Cook, a Monroe native who has worked his way around Southern kitchens for the better part of two decades, including turns at Crescent City favorites Dante’s Kitchen and Mondo. The first thing on Cook’s to-do list? Making sure Blouin and James held onto the two daiquiri machines they’d acquired along with the restaurant.

“We didn’t want to be another frozen daiquiri kind of bar,” Blouin said. “But then Caleb said, ‘Hold on a sec ... Instead of getting rid of the machines, let’s put fresh juice into them and see what we can do.’ ”

The result turned out to be a delight, with two fresh, frozen cocktails featuring local produce and bar chef-approved spirits.

On a recent visit, these included a daiquiri with fresh Pontchatoula strawberries, Atelier Vie Toulouse red absinthe, concentrated bissap tea and Old New Orleans spiced rum, as well as a brilliant Pimm’s Cup daiquiri, a refreshing take on the classic cocktail definitely worth seeking out on a hot afternoon.

“We try to do everything seasonally here,” said James. “One of our big hits recently was a blueberry basil gin gimlet daiquiri with Mississippi blueberries.”

As for the menu, Cook’s aim was to focus on pub food -- burgers, wings, fried chicken, etc. -- but with a more refined approach, what the St. Lawrence crew refers to as “elevated bar fare.”

And elevated it is. The chicken wings aren’t your average Buffalo variety, but rather a crispy confit version with a pepper jelly glaze, served with a goat cheese dressing.

Similarly, Cook’s “Southern spring rolls” may look Asian on first glance, but the filling is all Deep South, a country combo of collard greens, tasso, gruyere and house-made duck sauce.

This worldly approach with a strong Southern backbone also shines in the “crawfish cocktail,” the chef’s play on traditional shrimp cocktail with an Ecuadorian twist, incorporating crawfish tails, horseradish, avocado and cilantro lime juice.

The more plates arrived, the more I appreciated St. Lawrence’s skillful take on traditional pub grub. I was particularly wowed by Cook’s steak tartare, a delicate, creamy version of the raw, hand-chopped steak dish with a pleasing tang of horseradish, topped with a slow-poached egg and brûléed Parmesan. It was marvelous, and not at all what one might expect from a restaurant whose closest neighbors include a paint store and a Coyote Ugly saloon.

Entrees are a similarly pleasing mashup of down-home country cooking and refined cuisine. Standouts included the duck and waffles — a confit Chappapeela Farms duck leg served atop a scallion waffle, baby bok choy, watermelon radishes and hoisin “syrup” — as well as the house turducken burger, a satisfying sandwich version of the Louisiana Thanksgiving favorite served with a green apple remoulade, duck cracklins and dirty rice. And, for dessert, one would be remiss not to dig into Cook’s tempura-fried Oreos with vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate sauce, a heart-stoppingly decadent dish reminiscent of county fair cuisine in all the best ways.

Ultimately, the St. Lawrence team has wholeheartedly embraced their location. Said Cook, “You don’t necessarily have to sacrifice your ideals in order to have a place down here. I’m never going to put gumbo or jambalaya on my menu, because there are a thousand places around here where you can get that. I mean, I make great Creole food, but why do what everyone else is doing? Do something different! Stand out a little bit, and have fun with it!”