There was headcheese melted over a baked oyster and tart cranberry slush atop a raw one. Cava fizzed in wide-mouthed coupes and Richard Knox romped across the upright piano on the dining room's small stage. It was a smooth scene at Little Gem Saloon, and one I was glad to see given the rocky road that preceded it.
This restaurant and music hall emerged in January in one of the last surviving historic structures along a stretch of North Rampart Street that was a hotbed of jazz around the turn of the 20th century. It had languished for years until local physician Nicolas Bazan and his family bought the property and quickly completed a stunning renovation. With daily jazz and blues acts in the dining room, an upstairs room for ticketed shows and a mirror-backed, marble-topped bar, Little Gem played into the narrative of a resurgent downtown.
The restaurant's first chef, Robert Bruce, centered his menu on vintage Creole flavors (pickled oysters, stuffed fish, daube glace), drawing from his family's long experience with the cuisine and the building's history. But within weeks of opening, a revamp was underway. The menu eventually devolved to commonplace American fare like Caesar salads, grilled salmon, steaks and the inevitable "Little Gem burger." The cooking was usually spot-on, but the selection was dull and a letdown from its earlier promise.
The latest round of changes is much more encouraging. Bazan's son Nicolas Jr. is co-owner of RioMar and La Boca and is now running Little Gem. He tapped Miles Prescott, his chef and partner at RioMar, to take over the kitchen.
Prescott, a Georgia native, has given the menu a renewed sense of character with a modern Southern approach. Diners can taste it most distinctly in a gigantic beef short rib, which relinquishes its meat with a wink, and fried frogs' legs with a tomato "jam" that tastes like a smoky, chunky salsa. Char-marked, crisp-crusted rabbit tenderloin sliced over a gratin of more rabbit and cauliflower and piled with cabbage and apples is a dish waiting for autumn to catch up with it. Homespun sides like hoppin' John and cane syrup sweet potatoes seal the country credentials. Bouillabaisse and mussels trade on familiar bistro themes, and though they are good, they undermine the regional theme. Oysters (served five different ways) are reminders that the Little Gem is still in New Orleans, as are beignets presented like savory sundaes with foie gras mousse and salty caramel sauce dripping over them.
Next up? Football season, when many restaurants modify their game plans to some degree. The Little Gem, which sits on the Superdome's doorstep, at least has experience in that department.