Inspired by a world that eats on its feet
Those of us with broad and adventurous appetites tend to accept that those cravings often come with a bit of wanderlust.
Whether it’s Vietnam or Dubai, Shanghai, Mexico or the horn of Africa, the world offers a dizzying variety of flavors and culinary traditions that would take even the most avid jet-setter a lifetime to sample.
And yet, sadly, there can only be so many Anthony Bourdains, tasked with the dream job of professionally traversing the globe in search of the most interesting and exotic morsels to be had.
Most of us are left saving up for the occasional vacation, dreaming of faraway places and plates.
Fortunately for New Orleanians, a new restaurant in the Bywater aims to give diners a taste of the world, all on one menu, without ever having to show a passport.
Nick Vivion, along with business partner Kevin Farrell, was inspired by the flavors of the food stalls and street carts Vivion encountered in his journeys around the world as a food and travel writer.
These passions percolated for some time, culminating in a return to the Big Easy, a town that Vivion and Farrell decided might take well to a dash of the exotic.
The recently opened Booty’s (named, in a tip of the hat to New Orleans’ privateer history, after a trove of pirate’s plunder) offers both curious and worldly patrons a variety of flavors, the menu crisscrossing the globe from Puerto Rico to Nigeria, India and Belgium, and points between and afar.
This was perfectly OK with Chef Greg Fonseca, who Vivion and Farrell charged with fashioning Booty’s globetrotting menu.
“It’s total cook food,” Fonseca said. Street food is what cooks love to cook, and what we love to eat, especially late at night after a long shift. So we’re having a great time in the kitchen here.”
A small sampling of the 19 individual dishes — the plates are both sized and priced modestly, encouraging diners to order more so that they can share — begins with thick Belgian fries, hot, salty and golden, served as they are traditionally: in a paper cone, with a variety of house-made mayonnaises and sauces.
“To me,” said Fonseca, “the fries are good in their own right, but it’s also a delivery system for our sauces. We didn’t want to just have great mayonnaise; we wanted to have variations on that, to be a little playful with it.”
From there, we went to India for deconstructed papadums, a thin, crispy pastry cup filled with curried mirliton and carrots, and topped with a coconut cream and a sprig of cilantro, and then over to Japan for shrimp kushiyaki, huge Gulf shrimp that Fonseca skewers, grills, then glazes with a spicy chili sauce.
Also from Japan comes a bowl of steaming ramen, though don’t expect the same MSG and sodium-bomb from your dorm room days.
The treasured traditional dish of noodles arrives with house-cured pork belly, chives and a soft poached egg, over which diners pour a rich pork broth to create the distinctive noodle soup.
Fonseca said, “I was vehement about having this one on the menu. In this neighborhood, with so many restaurant people, it absolutely needed to be there. We’re also serving it for brunch, which is great because it’s a perfect hangover cure.”
Another item to seek out is Booty’s “mofongo” a dish that, in its native Puerto Rico, usually begins with soft plantains.
This version uses yuca, mashed and molded into a fritter Fonseca fills with shredded pork and spices, fries and serves with a garnish of colorful peppers.
Not that building a temple to global flavors was an easy undertaking in a city steeped in tradition and sometimes wary of new concepts, especially when it comes to cuisine.
Said Vivion, “During the first six months of the build-out, people would pop their heads in to ask what we were making of the space. ‘International street food,’ we’d tell them, and they’d say, ‘Seafood?’ having no idea what we were talking about. About a month before we opened, though, people started to realize what we were doing, and that made them excited and hopeful for something new and different.”
New Orleanians may be familiar with Mexican tacos, Italian arancini (rice balls), or the banh mi sandwich, which locals know affectionately as the “Vietnamese po-boy,” all of which grace Booty’s menu.
But intrepid diners now have a place to sample pupusas from El Salvador, Nigerian “akara” (black eyed pea fritters with tomato relish), Korean dumplings, grilled Brazilian cheese and Ecuadorian ceviche with popcorn.
Even the drinks have an international flair, including a delicious horchata — a Mexican milk beverage — and fruity “aguas frescas,” sparkling water flavored with strawberry or tamarind.
Ultimately, Booty’s proprietors aspire to bring a sense of worldliness to their Bywater location and its guests.
According to Vivion, “Not everyone can travel around the world, or even want to. But I’ve always thought it inspiring to taste something from somewhere far away. To get that glimmer of hope that maybe, one day, I’ll be able to go to places like this. And that’s what I really hope to give people here.”