It's not every day diners find goat curry vying for the spotlight next to lobster pici pasta — or a dish of black-eyed peas rivaling a plate of semolina gnocchi. At Compere Lapin, chef Nina Compton blends Caribbean and Italian influences, and the result is a successful merger of exciting flavor combinations and culinary styles.
Compton, a Top Chef New Orleans fan favorite and runner-up, honed her pasta credentials at Scott Conant's Italian restaurant Scarpetta in Miami. After setting her sights on New Orleans, she opened her first brick and mortar in June inside the Old No. 77 Hotel and Chandlery.
The cavernous space exudes modern elegance that's warm and welcoming, with dark wood paneling, exposed brick walls and navy blue accents. A few rabbit images invoke the restaurant's namesake, a mischievous Br'er Rabbit-like character immortalized in Caribbean folklore.
A well-heeled crowd holds court here, and a weekend night can seem as if Compton brought some of South Beach's stylish clientele to the dining room along with her expertly crafted pastas and Italian culinary prowess.
The menu reads like an autobiography of Compton's kitchen life. There are French techniques honed during her formative years and a dedication to simple, quality ingredients that is unmistakably Italian, but it's also a testament to the flavors of the Caribbean — a nod to her upbringing in St. Lucia. The combinations are evident in delicately pickled mango wedges accompanying lip-numbing hot fried chicken, in golden-fried conch croquettes paired with tart pineapple tartar sauce, and in curried goat stew served with plantain gnocchi.
There also is a distinctly Southern touch. Every meal begins with flaky chive biscuits served with a duo of compound butters — one sweetened with honey and speckled with sea salt and the other a smoky bacon version. Dirty rice arancini features the Southern standby formed into orbs, lightly battered, fried until golden and served with tangy orange mojo sauce.
Seafood features prominently on the menu. Cold-smoked tuna tartare is served with dollops of avocado cream, crispy discs of chilled radish and paper-thin banana chips dotted with black sesame seeds. The shape and presentation of the chips can vary from visit to visit, but the dish needs more of them.
Citrus-marinated shrimp are served with an emerald sauce made from roasted jalapenos that is poured over the dish tableside. The plump crustaceans are delightfully juicy and fresh tasting, and fat wedges of avocado interspersed with cilantro leaves add subtle flavor.
There are several takes on pici, hand-rolled noodles that resemble thick, rough spaghetti. The most impressive incarnation is served at lunchtime, when vegetarian carbonara is on the menu. Made with thick fennel crema, the dish carries a deep earthy flavor derived from a medley of smoked mushrooms instead of pancetta. Topped with buttery breadcrumbs, it screams for a glass of something crisp and white followed by a long nap.
If there's one thing that best melds the Caribbean and Southern influences, it's Compton's hot fried chicken. Inspired by the Tennessee staple, boneless thighs are fried crispy and carry the scorching heat and bright crimson hue of the iconic dish. Topping the thighs is a bounty of colorful, cooling accoutrements, including bracingly fresh carrot, celery and squash slaw and a mango pickle medley. The latter imparts a little sweetness and brine while the slaw adds texture, balancing out some of the sweat-inducing spice.
While the after-dinner drink list speaks fluent Italian — a list of amari includes Cynar, Averna and fernet — the short dessert list whispers of the sweet flavors found in the islands, including coconut tres leches cake and a plate of roasted banana zeppole served with rum caramel sauce.
Subtle flavor combinations like these make Compere Lapin unique and prove that Compton's talents have found a home.