For a few months now, I have been hearing people reference the new St. Vincent Hotel in the LGD, the hip way to say the Lower Garden District. I was definitely curious about it, as hotels, especially luxury boutique ones, are kind of a hobby for me.
But there was no reason to go until ML mentioned the Elizabeth St. Cafe inside the hotel, when I asked her what was new and interesting food out there.
The Elizabeth St. Cafe has a sister property in Austin, which immediately raised a red flag for me. My secret fear for New Orleans is that it will become Austin, a now cosmopolitan city whose original Wild West Texas vibe has been greatly diluted by millennial hipness.
Putting that thought away, I was intrigued by the look of the menu, and the menu itself, at Elizabeth St. Cafe.
Billed as Vietnamese-French, the French influences are minimal and saved for the boulangerie, which amounts to a few baked items.
I didn’t go immediately into The Elizabeth St. Cafe, wanting to indulge my hotel curiosity first. The hotel is the refurbished St. Vincent de Paul orphanage on Magazine right before the street makes its hard right turn. The iron gate remains, as does the walkway entrance. I went through what seemed like a side entrance from the parking lot, but the presence of the doorman suggests that maybe this is the entrance.
It is a lovely refurbishment much like Hotel Peter & Paul, a building with solid Catholic roots, whose irreverent new look is not modern but more vintage, glamorously hip with a little roughness around the edges. The chapel is now a guests-only bar, its entrance in an intentionally dark corridor.
The pool is the most interesting part of the property, sitting in a courtyard surrounded by the building, and featuring a large bar. There is a second restaurant inside the building, the San Lorenzo, named for the patron saint of cooks. Its menu is definitely gourmet, upscale, and eclectic, though they call it Italian.
My self-guided tour of the property ended at the Elizabeth St. Cafe, which is a tiny outdoor patio cafe to the left of the hotel. It’s adorable, with its minimal seating all outdoors, under umbrellas with spritzers and fans to make it less New Orleans -summer miserable. The quick glance impression is airy and colorful.
The entrance and pick-up counter space is tiny, with the open kitchen beyond. On the counter are macarons, financiers, and croissants. I ordered a ham and cheese croissant and some beignets with house made jam, either raspberry/lychee, or strawberry/guava. The former was really delicious and had a jam consistency, with the latter less tasty and also pectin-challenged. The beignets were smallish and rectangular, dense and minimally dusted with powdered sugar. We’ve had better, and worse.
The menu was substantial, and so was our order. We started with dumplings with chili oil, spicy chicken crunch spring rolls, and BBQ pork spring rolls, a marinated pork banh mi, Singapore noodles, and red curry Dan Dan noodles.
The dumplings were tasty enough, (chili oil is a great enhancement) Stuffed densely into more of a rounded shape than a thinner crescent, these were perfectly fine but nothing more.
One of the things that has always and still does impress me perhaps most about Vietnamese food is the vibrant color of the fresh vegetables and the thin and perfect uniformity of them. Both of the spring rolls were bursting out of their wrappers with carrot and mint and a dark protein: the spicy crunchy chicken was densely seasoned with black pepper and the pork had a dark sear. The chicken was good, the pork less so. I found the pork chewy and too thick. It seemed to have been fried but it was definitely too thick at ⅜’ square and 3-4 inches long for such chewiness. I loved the mint-based sauce that accompanied the chicken, which also had the standard clear dipping sauce and a sesame-oil almost cream-based sauce with more black pepper.
The banh mi had the same too-thick pork and the very piquant medley of vegetables and condiments that definitively separates a Vietnamese sandwich from the local one. It’s hard to object to this blend of assertive flavors, despite the disappointment of the pork.
The Singapore noodles were loaded with things like scrambled farm egg and the same pork as well as shrimp. The sauce featured madras curry and other perky spices. There was a generous amount of watercress here too. Both types of noodles we tried seemed to be more like overcooked pasta, not the expected vermicelli rice noodles one would expect. By this time we had to conclude this was all just “not to my liking” as is so often said in the business.
Of everything in this order we most highly anticipated the Dan Dan noodles. We first tried Dan Dan noodles down the block at Blue Giant, and they hit all the sensory nerves. Spicy to that threshold, loaded with stuff, those Dan Dan noodles are a tough act to follow. The Dan Dan noodles here were nothing like it, nor should it have been. We are comparing two different Asian cuisines. From now on I will stick with Chinese flavors, which I am more familiar with and I find less arresting on the palate, and I will leave all of this to people who are much more adventurous diners. They will be pleased.