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Bywater’s Louisa Street corridor has blossomed into a culinary hotbed in recent years, with restaurants drawing diners to this once-sleepy set of blocks using a combination of words with magnetizing power: small plates and craft cocktails.

While Oxalis — a recent addition to the scene — may offer up these obligatory options, the restaurant’s fresh-yet-cozy atmosphere (despite the taxidermy) and attention to detail both at the bar and tableside create an engaging top-to-bottom dining experience that few restaurants pull off with such aplomb.

Located in a space that has seen its share of crash-and-burn restaurant attempts, Oxalis uses the building’s unusual arrangement of labyrinthine dining nooks and cobblestone courtyards to its advantage. Even on the busiest Friday night (after meandering out of the often-packed front room) the restaurant feels intimate and mysterious, as if after turning each corner a new surprise will be revealed. Dark wood and black accent walls are a bold choice for any restaurant that isn’t the size of an airplane hangar, but these touches only add to Oxalis’ secret-society feel. A recently opened second bar anchors the back set of rooms, ensuring no one has to retrace their steps back to the front of the house for a fresh cocktail.

It’s heartening to see a whiskey-focused bar that pays equal attention to both top- and bottom-shelf offerings, and manager Sonali Fernando has assembled the finest collection of “plastic cap” brown liquors in the city. The cocktails are crisp and refreshing, and provide a strong jumping-off point for whiskey exploration. The fruity, full-bodied Stiletto (now off menu, but still available) allows both lemon and lime juice to shine in a bourbon-based drink, while the Rattlesnake’s subtle licorice flavor will turn anyone into a rye-and-absinthe convert. Arrive early enough in the evening and expect a frothy Ramos gin fizz as a whistle-wetting amuse bouche.

While the majority of dishes at Oxalis have been designed to pair well with boozy indulgences, calling chef Jonathan Lestingi’s menu elevated gastropub cuisine would be a slight. The local tomato salad is exceptional, with the peppery notes of arugula cast in new light against the tanginess of tomato jam and a cool, rich dappling of burrata. (The jam alone makes a strong case for reviving tomato aspic.) The cauliflower steak allows for this often-overlooked vegetable to shine as a filling main course, with a sheep’s milk Gouda that grounds the dish with earthy undertones.

The bo saam — a popular menu item from Lestingi’s previous endeavor La Fin du Monde — doesn’t hold up in new environs. Odd, middle-of-the-road portioning and less-than-tender pork belly makes the dish a weak link on a menu full of gems. A shareable jar of highly acidic pickles and kimchi is also a miss, with a tartness that would cause even the most fervent pickle fan to pucker.

Overall, it’s the small plates and items meant for sharing that stand out. The sweet potato poutine makes lowly cheese curds seem elegant, and the twice-fried Korean-style wings are well worth enduring a face smeared with kimchi sauce. The prices are pleasantly reasonable as well, with the majority of menu items ranging from $5 (for a generous helping of addictive Cajun spice hot buttered rum popcorn) to $15 (for a decadent duck confit).

While elevated bar food and hand-crafted drinks are increasingly common in New Orleans today, Oxalis makes both feel like a new discovery.

what
Oxalis

where
3162 Dauphine St., (504) 267-4776

when
dinner daily

how much
moderate

what works
rich, refreshing heirloom tomato salad; addictive Cajun-spiced hot buttered rum popcorn; cauliflower steak

what doesn’t
bo saam featured tough pork belly and undercooked popcorn rice

check, please
top-shelf gastropub fare for bottom-shelf prices with an impressive selection of whiskies 

— This review will appear in the April 8, 2014 edition of Gambit.

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