When Nina Compton competed on Top Chef in New Orleans, Miamians cheered our hometown girl. The then Scarpetta chef de cuisine fell just short of first place but snagged the coveted fan favorite award and the attention of the country. Three months after the series finale aired, Compton announced she was leaving her gig with Scott Conant.
Most everyone assumed she'd open a restaurant in South Florida, but Compton fell in love with New Orleans. In an interview last year, Compton told New Times , "Once I was there, I was surprised how much New Orleans reminded me of St. Lucia (where she was born), with its blend of French, English, and African culture. The food and music are just amazing."
After over a dozen years in her adopted city of Miami, she and husband, Larry Miller, took a gamble and moved to the Big Easy to start a new life and a new restaurant. Compere Lapin opened just over a month ago (and a week ahead of schedule) at the Old. No. 77 Hotel and Foundry in downtown New Orleans. The restaurant, named after a Caribbean folk tale about a "brother rabbit," is a mix of Caribbean flavors, Italian influences, and formal culinary techniques. In short, the restaurant embodies Nina Compton's training and spirit. If you know the chef, you know this is what she truly wants to cook.
Compton's dishes focus on bright flavors with touches of heat, tropical fruits, and local produce. Complementing the food is a smallish, comprehensive wine list. Of course, cocktails are a large part of New Orleans dining and Compere Lapin's beverage program is solid. Head bartender Ricky Gomez, who helped open NOLA cocktail haven Cure, turns out the best Pimm's Cup this side of the Pond.
Teetotalers and people in search of much-needed hydration after a long day in the scorching New Orleans sun will be quenched by the bartender's carbonated coconut water. Though Gomez uses the sparkling liquid in a cocktail with sherry, it's just as good on its own for a delicious break from alcohol.
While in New Orleans, I stopped into the restaurant twice. At dinner, I sat at the friendly bar for a solitary bite, but friends are made over food in the Crescent City. I wound up seated next to a manager at one of the city's most revered restaurants, who finally had an evening off to try out this new kid in town. Sharing plates with each other (and passing some down the bar for others to try), a quick meal turned into a full-out experience as our bartender Abigail, dressed in a custom-made frock embroidered with bunnies, encouraged us to experiment further. With such a charming accomplice, who also has a good singing voice, resistance was futile and we ordered more food.
Roasted jerk corn with aioli and lime ($5) is a spicy Caribbean take on
Compton's experience with Italian cuisine meets traditional New Orleans cooking with the chef's dirty rice balls ($5) filled with cheese, a nice play on traditional arancini.
No dish tells the story of Compton's journey as much as her goat with plantain gnocchi ($22), which combines her Caribbean roots and time spent perfecting her Italian cuisine. Miami fans of the chef might recall the dish from her Breaking Bread pop-up at Cafe Mistral.
The restaurant's obligatory roasted chicken dish is anything but ordinary. Compton serves deboned dark meat over corn grits with sausage gravy ($22). The result is homespun comfort food that would fit right into the dinner table of a Norman Rockwell painting. It's basically a hug on a plate.
Compere Lapin's lunch menu differs from dinner though you can still find the goat. Walking from the French Quarter at high noon with a heat index of over 100 degrees, I opted for a cool gazpacho ($15). Tangy Creole tomatoes are the perfect foil for sweet summer corn and generous chunks of lobster.
The gazpacho would have proved sufficiently satisfying, but I was intrigued by the hot fire chicken ($16). Boneless thigh meat is fried and liberally doused with hot sauce. I like my food spicy, and this chicken was just on the cusp of fiery (as the name implies), but house-made bread and butter pickles and pickled mango cool off the palate in a most delightful way. Although I rarely order chicken, I realized that I had eaten it twice in as many days in two very different ways — by the same chef.
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Before I left Compere Lapin, the chef, who was behind the line both late on a Friday evening and early on a Sunday afternoon, chatted for a moment. She wanted to send her regards to everyone back home and catch up on some restaurant news. She said that the welcome from the community and fellow chefs in NOLA have been wonderful, but "I miss the people and the beach." Compton plans to return to Miami — at least for a few days — in the fall, when she hosts another Top Chef cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection departing Miami on November 14.
For now, however, Miami diners can take comfort in the knowledge that Compton's food is just a quick two-hour flight away in New Orleans. Compere Lapin is conveniently located inside a well-priced hotel, making it the perfect weekend getaway.