In the contemporary culinary landscape, it seems, fortune favors the bold. Chefs across the nation are conjuring up ever more complex flavor profiles and presentations, often inspired by kitchen chemists and “molecular gastronomy.”
To stay hip and relevant, cooks are dreaming big: serving scallops in cigar boxes, caviar on staircases and ceviche in miniature waffle cones. If you’re not innovating, the theory goes, you’re dying.
For Michael Nirenberg, chef at the newly opened Tivoli & Lee restaurant in the Hotel Modern, the drive to “go big or go home” couldn’t be more counterintuitive.
His culinary theory? “Nothing too out of the box,” the chef said. “Simply put, I want to make food that people like to eat, and that I would like to eat. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. In fact, that’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do. ... I want to keep it simple and classic, and let the food shine for itself.”
The restaurant pays homage to its location, Lee Circle, which used to be known as “Tivoli Circle” for the carousel it featured before the monument to the famous general.
Nirenberg is a native New Yorker who trained in Boston before moving to New Orleans and working in kitchens including Patois, The Delachaise and Oak. He grew Tivoli & Lee’s menu from a pop-up restaurant, Why Not, as the hotel transitioned away from its former restaurant into something new.
“Week to week we’d specialize in something different,” Nirenberg said. “We did a whole hog menu, a beef and lamb menu, a vegetable menu, seafood and then we just picked out the dishes that went over the best and incorporated them into what we’re doing here right now.”
The focus on simplicity is clear in Tivoli & Lee’s menu. In fact, a first glance at the offerings might seem a little too basic for some, perhaps leading them to believe that the food is uninspired. There’s a burger, of course, and a pasta dish, a kale Caesar salad, fried oysters, duck confit, deviled eggs, a pan-roasted chicken breast, a chargrilled ribeye: nothing, really, that would cause trend-spotting foodies to hoist any flags.
However, just because a menu seems familiar doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not perfectly wonderful, as I was reminded on a recent visit to Tivoli & Lee. The meal began with a bowl of flash-fried brussels sprouts with pepper jelly, a combination of sweet, savory and vegetal that started the meal on a strong note ($6), as well as a trio of pork belly sliders lacquered in spicy hoisin barbecue sauce and topped with a pickled daikon slaw ($13).
“There would be riots in the streets if those ever came off the menu,” noted a bartender, and it’s easy to see just why she was so enthusiastic.
Following that was a first entree, duck confit with braised greens and “andouille tots” ($24). While some chefs overcook this popular dish, Nirenburg hits the mark. The key to his version is a pomegranate molasses brushed on the fragrant, tender duck. “I thin the sauce out with a bit of chili vinegar and mustard,” the chef said, “so you balance out the sweetness with a nice level of spice.”
The greens, butter-braised rainbow swiss chard, offered a perfect complement to the duck, as do the addictive andouille tots, also available as an appetizer. Then there’s the burger ($17), another bull’s-eye for the chef. It would be a great sandwich, even if it were only a perfectly medium-rare lamb burger with arugula, pickled red onion and mint aioli on a buttery, soft brioche roll. But the addition of a gently fried duck egg takes it to the next level, and should pull it to the top of anyone’s list of gourmet hamburgers in the Crescent City.
Said Nirenberg, “We have a regular burger on our menu for hotel guests and for lunch, but we did want to do something a bit different as well. The lamb, from Two Run Farms, is on the younger side, and doesn’t have as much developed fat, which makes it less gamey. So it’s really a more approachable way for people to get into lamb. Just a real simple burger, with the lamb and mint combination, which is classic.”
The bar program, designed by mixologist Kimberly Patton-Bragg (formerly of the Swizzle Stick, Domenica and Dominique’s), focuses on fun cocktails and an impressive list of American whiskeys.
Guests can order the weekly whiskey flight — three from the Four Roses distillery, in my case — or taste individually, guided by Patton-Bragg, a self-described “whiskey nerd.”
Be on the lookout for the “Cereal Killer” cocktail, her version of a bourbon milk punch. It’s milk infused with Honey Smacks breakfast cereal, which is exactly as outrageous as it sounds.
The meal concluded over the house-made “dirt bombs,” mini cinnamon-sugar muffins with house-made coffee ice cream and condensed milk ($7).
For Nirenburg, the restaurant’s “Modern Southern” cuisine comes naturally.
“It’s a pretty loose term, with respect to the way that food seems to be heading right now, with the focus on being local, sustainable and seasonal. But it’s all about simplicity. I mean, I go out and eat in fancy restaurants, but the molecular gastronomy thing is just not for me. This just feels right: taking really great ingredients and letting them shine.”