Can restaurants survive on their own terms? One offbeat New Orleans bistro shows a way
The five-course tasting menu at Saint-Germain showed the technique and creativity that earned this modern, unconventional Bywater bistro its following. It also revealed something more remarkable for a restaurant right now: a business model somehow holding up in the pandemic.
Since opening in 2018, Saint-Germain has functioned as two complementary concepts under one roof. There’s a wine bar and patio for anytime drinks and snacks. The main act is a small, 16-seat dining room, serving a chef’s tasting menu exclusively, and by reservation only.
Take-it-or-leave-it tasting menus like this are usually at the peak of high-end dining, a picture of indulgence, certainly for the customers paying for it and often for the chef calling all the shots.
Saint-Germain was built around a different approach to the concept, all in a bid to make ambitious cuisine both more accessible for the customer and more sustainable for the restaurant.
It trades the gilded amenities of luxury dining for a more inventive thriftiness. There’s a touch of plain-spoken DIY homeyness around this lightly converted shotgun house and its leafy back patio.
It serves a menu that can be exhilaratingly unpredictable at the table yet remains viable for a kitchen with a small staff to field night after night.
Right now, that approach is answering some of the difficulties that restaurants across the spectrum are struggling to answer.
“We feel fortunate we’re able to run the way we are,” said Will “Trey” Smith, who created the restaurant with co-chef Blake Aguillard and partner Drew DeLaughter.
“For everything restaurants have been through, our regulars tell us it’s still a touch of normalcy.”
Restaurants of all types have suffered in the pandemic, and none more than independent, full-service restaurants.
The crisis has wildly exacerbated the usual uncertainties restaurants face — how many people will show, will they sell the food they buy, are staffing levels right, will something (street flooding, power failure, storm advisories, locusts) emerge to shut it all down?
To adjust, some restaurants are changing or adding to their core offerings, like serving large takeout meals to feed families at home. Others are trying to maintain their niches and traditions under different terms, like prearranged private dining or even ticketed visits. It’s all meant to limit the risk of losing more than the restaurant might bring in by opening the doors.
Saint-Germain was drawn up to manage those risks in its own way, and while the partners certainly did not foresee today’s crisis, the approach has proven durable through it.
With its tasting menu, Saint-Germain cooks the same dishes for every table every night, changing the menu each month (and adding a vegetarian menu the third week of each month). Reservations are still required, which informs the kitchen’s purveying and preparations.
That means, even now, the chefs have a pretty good idea how much snapper to buy and how much smoked maple syrup to make.
That last ingredient went into one ridiculously delicious dessert, dueling with lemon and vanilla across what was ostensibly a crème brûlée.
Much of the wow factor on Saint-Germain menus comes from techniques and ideas like this, rather than high-dollar ingredients and spectacular, photo-friendly presentations.
It comes through in an intense XO sauce for a crusty-topped scallop, or the delicate depth of a risotto sluiced with chicken jus, or the way pickling, fermenting, smoking and aging coaxes maximum (and often counterintuitive) flavors from everyday vegetables. Even the bread course has a cultured butter aged so long it tastes like spreadable Parmesan.
“We jokingly say it’s the best meal you can get in a T-shirt,” said Smith.
That has always been part of the appeal of Saint-Germain. Now it’s a saving grace, at least thus far.
Dinner here is not cheap ($95, plus $55 for an optional wine pairing). But even with all the economic and employment woes, locals are still dining out, and they’re still booking tables at Saint-Germain.
And, as always, you know exactly what you’re getting into when the bill arrives. Prix fixe has some reassurances for the customer, too.
Maybe now, one of those is that a promising next-generation picture of New Orleans cuisine has a fighting chance in this mess.
3054 St. Claude Ave., 504-218-8729
Wine bar and bistro Wed.-Sun. from 5 p.m.
Reservations required for the bistro