346 W. 46th Street
“Are you seeing a show?” the waitress asked when my friends and I sat down for lunch at Bourbon Street, a new addition to restaurant row on West 46th Street in Hell’s Kitchen. For a native New Yorker (or at least someone posing as one), the question, delivered with doe-eyed enthusiasm, was like an affectionate slap. The aim was friendly, but it stung a little. I wondered if we looked like tourists, glancing at our clothes to identify any sartorial giveaways.
But I was probably being too sensitive. After all, this stretch of West 46th Street draws much of its business from the hordes that descend on Times Square and Broadway for theatrical triumphs like the Lion King and Legally Blonde: the Musical. And Bourbon Street, a startlingly large and elaborately contrived space, seems intent on creating some theater of its own.
As the name suggests, Bourbon Street is devoted to Louisiana cuisine, and the building in which the restaurant is housed has been transformed into a Broadway-style French Quarter fantasy. Shiny wrought-iron railings and flickering gaslights, like a set from A Streetcar Named Desire, surround a sunken patio out front. One floor above, a long terrace with tables for two overlooks the street. And inside, the ground-floor bar and dining room have vaulted ceilings and recede into a seductive lounge area in the back, detailed in dark wood and
The menu is equally ambitious and includes a broad array of classic Creole and Cajun dishes, from a chicken and Andouille étouffée ($17) to New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp ($25). This isn’t haute cuisine, but it’s competent enough to satisfy your Southern kitchen cravings with items that you won’t find at your neighborhood bistro.
For starters, I went with the waitress’ recommendation of the Creole tomato napoleon ($10), a steep stack of tomatoes and mozzarella garnished with red onions, croutons, basil and white balsamic vinaigrette. The ingredients were fresh and the amalgam a pleasant one, but I wish it hadn’t been so hard to eat. I had to topple the tower and comb through the rubble to assemble each bite. Our other appetizers were less dramatically styled but more interesting in composition: the turtle soup ($9)—a “New Orleans favorite”—had a sharp flavor, a bit like hot and sour soup; and the duck spring rolls ($10) were meaty and flavorful, with caramelized shallots, parsley, fontina cheese and orange gastrique.
As a main course, the catfish po’boy ($13) could have fed the entire cast of Annie, with leftovers for the orchestra and crew. The sauce on the bread was bland, but the heaping pile of fried catfish on top was surprisingly tender. Oysters are big in New Orleans, and Bourbon Street’s were fleshy and at the salty end of the flavor spectrum. My only complaint with the Buffalo oyster salad: a heap of iceberg lettuce in the middle of the plate that cheapened the dish. Though the wedge of iceberg is a Southern tradition, arugula addicts and field green freaks are sure to click their tongues.
And a meal at Bourbon Street wouldn’t be complete without a plate of the buffalo alligator ($9). As a lifelong Yankee, I associate the word “alligator” with terms like “threatened” and “endangered species.” But apparently alligators are as common as rats and pigeons in Louisiana, a dangerous nuisance to joggers and an occasional surprise guest in suburban kitchens and the basements of retirement homes. Diced and breaded, the chunks of reptile tasted a lot like chicken nuggets.
Bourbon Street was quiet on the day we visited, and it’s too early to tell whether the place will catch on. The owners are optimistic that a combination of theatergoers, office workers and local residents seeking a bayou fix will keep the place busy; but trying to cater to such divergent crowds might be a challenge. The over-the-top, “theme-y” décor may attract vacationing families who view the city as one big theme park anyway, but it could be a harder sell for Manhattan residents. The restaurant has a lot of tables to fill, and success will depend on finding a way to please all of their intended constituencies.
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