Little Gem Saloon
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
It’s frustrating that the two most famous elements of New Orleans culture have only rarely come together in one venue. In restaurants with live music or music clubs with food, either the food or the music will be distinctly inferior to the other. So it took equal measures of guts and capital for Dr. Nicolas Bazan to build and open the Little Gem.
WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
The Little Gem serves two very different clienteles. At lunchtime, its down-home menu grabs a big slice of the workforce in the nearby City Hall and Louisiana State offices, plus some from the LSU Medical Center. From late afternoon through the evening, it becomes a full-blown jazz club, with well-known local musicians performing at listenable but modest volumes, while a serious bistro kitchen turns out creditable gourmet bistro dinners. Still later, the center of action moves to a theater upstairs, where the food and drinks keep coming but the music takes over. All this takes place at menu prices a shade below average for comparable food.
The kitchen takes a strong stand on oysters, with the bivalves raw on the half shell and in several imaginative grilled versions. From there the menu remains interested in seafood, using it in a majority of the restaurant’s best dishes. Reaches into the past for ideas brings modernized fried chicken, ribs, pork chops–all mentioned in jazz tunes from time out of mind–to the fore.
The original Little Gem appeared on South Rampart Street in the early 1900s. It and clubs like it incubated the new music called jazz. All the great early jazz musicians played in this sketchy neighborhood, where all pleasures of the flesh were available, with jazz playing in the background. The neighborhood was all but destroyed in the 1950s, when the city razed South Rampart Street wholesale to widen it. The modern Little Gem opened in 2012 in one of the few buildings that survived. It sat empty for decades until neuroscience research doctor-winery owner Nicolas Bazan and partners Tim and Charles Clark took over. He and his son (who also own RioMar and La Boca) performed a superb renovation. Three menu concepts came and went in the first couple of years, ranging from steakhouse to homestyle Creole cooking. About a year ago it settled on contemporary Creole-French groove, with vestiges of the earlier menus.
The renovation of the old building was so well accomplished that even the tiled floors are level. On the ground floor, a bandstand big enough for a half-dozen musicians runs along a long wall, with the bar at one end and the hard-to-find entrance at the other. All the tables have a good, close view of the music being made. It’s almost too good to be true that you can hear both the music and the voices of your dining companions simultaneously. The upstairs space has more of a nightclub feeling.
»Soup of the day
»Raw oysters on the half shell
»»Grilled oysters Little Gem (grilled on the shells, andouille and artichoke cream)
»Grilled oysters Rockefeller (spinach bacon, herbsaint)
»Grilled oysters Bienville (shrimp, mushrooms, bacon)
Fried green tomato wedges, remoulade
House salad, Bibb, endive, celeriac, herbs, cane vinaigrette
Iceberg wedge salad
»Strawberry salad, candied pecans, onions, balsamic vinaigrette
»Smoked St. Louis-cut ribs, peach-mustard barbecue sauce
»New Orleans barbecue shrimp, jalapeno cornbread
House-made charcuterie board
Fried chicken and mushroom bread pudding, black pepper gravy
Jumbo shrimp & grits, smoked tomato sauce, fines herbes
»Grilled hanger steak, smoked mushroom demi-glace
»Seared scallops, sweet pea risotto, preserved citrus
»Grilled Gulf fish of the day, fava bean succotash, crabmeat and shallot vinaigrette
»Smoked pork chop, berry-apricot compote, braised greens, sweet potato gratin
FOR BEST RESULTS
A dinner made entirely of appetizers would be as good an order as you can make. Pay attention to the specials, which are more ambitious and interesting than you might expect.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The entree section of the menu could use a little more beefing up (literally).
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +2
- Wine & Bar +1
- Hipness +3
- Local Color +3
- Live music every night
- Open Sunday lunch
- Open after 10 p.m.
- Oyster bar
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations accepted