A menu loud in superlatives
But Storyville makes its diners shout to be heard
Having gotten the nod from Storyville’s bouncers, we are lounging on low, black leather couches. They line walls covered in flocked red paper. A server comes to take our drink order. “We are actually serving food tonight,’’ she informs us. Is this unusual? Maybe it’s unusual. No one else is eating. Then, there aren’t many people here. It’s a Thursday night, the music is bumping, but Storyville is half-empty. An employee emerges from the kitchen, chucks an empty black bin on the floor, and walks away. A bartender raises his eyebrows, laughs, and shrugs. “He’s crazy.’’
Then the food comes, and it’s dynamite, which is good because the clubby beats are drowning out our conversation. If we can’t talk, at least we can eat. Storyville is a nightclub with a serious chef - Louis DiBiccari, formerly of Sel de la Terre. He’s put together a succinct menu of small plates that riff on retro fare like duck a l’orange and green bean casserole.
Moon Shoal oysters are fried in a spiced cornmeal batter, crisp and greaseless, served in a basket. Surprises await within: There’s a bite of saffron-yellow potato, a sliver of sweet-hot pickled red jalapeno, a crisp piece of radish. The variety keeps you eating, as does a dipping sauce of thin, airy aioli flavored with kimchi. Are there better fried oysters in town? I can’t think of where.
DiBiccari schools your grandmother with his green bean casserole. It’s vegetables in name if not in function, rich with Landaff cheese. Creamy and tangy, it coats green beans, cauliflower florets, and meaty mushrooms that have been roasted in a pizza oven. Crisped shallots and fresh herbs lighten the flavors just a bit. I’m eating with a Midwestern friend reared on some semblance of this fare. I think he might cry with joy.
Duck a l’orange previously featured breast meat wrapped around duck confit; the kitchen recently began preparing it with duck leg instead. (DiBiccari also says he is shifting the menu toward dishes that are easier to share.) The meat is cured in bittersweet chocolate, sugar, and salt, deepening the flavor; orange-scented jus pools on the plate, and around the duck nestle almonds, macerated figs, and citrus segments. Stalks of broccoli rabe offset the fruit with just enough bitterness.
Steak Wellington takes perfectly medium-rare meat cut from the tender part of the shoulder, then encases it in a bland sleeve of pastry. The dough keeps sliding off anyway, and the steak is wonderful with a buttery pillow of potatoes Robuchon and deeply savory soy-roasted mushrooms.
We drink a PKNY, a guilty pleasure of a Tiki drink in a tall glass - a happily fruity mixture of rum with pineapple, coconut, and orange. For dessert, there are half-baked chocolate chip cookies, gooey and the first cookie plate I’ve had at a restaurant that isn’t a total letdown. The meal is a delight, yet we hightail it out of there as quickly as possible, repairing to a bar down the road. At Storyville, it is too loud to hear ourselves drink.
On another visit, the awful soundtrack is replaced by a live quartet. Vocalist Andrea Capozzoli gamely belts it out to the two occupied tables. Girl plays trumpet, too! We clap as loudly as we can. The people next to us order pommes frites. We order everything else on the menu.
Storyville’s fries are good, but even better is a mixture of roasted potatoes dusted in za’atar, tiny roasted Brussels sprouts, cashews, pomegranate seeds, and arugula bound together with lemon aioli - a warm, bright, unique potato salad.
Someone in the kitchen has a heavy hand with the salt this night, and a beef short rib Bourguignon, tagliatelle with lobster, and baked beans are all teetering on the edge of edibility. It’s a shame. The beef is so tender, the pasta just al dente. The baked beans apparently contain foie gras, but we can’t taste it. At Storyville, pot pie is filled with guinea hen rather than chicken, warmly spiced with cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg and braised until tender. It arrives with a badly burned lid of puff pastry.
For dessert we order apple cobbler. Just when we think it has been forgotten entirely, the dish arrives, also burned on top. Attention wanders when you’re cooking for one table, but there’s a little invention called a timer.
While waiting for dessert, we drink cocktails: a Sazerac so perfectly made we could be in New Orleans; a drink named the Lady Day that merges gin, Campari, passion fruit, and honey for the just-right mix of bitter and sweet. William “English Bill’’ Codman, whom you may last have seen at Woodward in the Ames hotel, is in charge of the bar here, and tonight he’s in the house.
This space was previously Saint, but it’s now named after an earlier incarnation, the ’50s jazz club where Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald performed. In honor of Storyville’s history, there’s a bit of a jazz-New Orleans vibe, with a repeating fleur-de-lis motif. This feels like a club where service and hospitality might not be the priority, but the staff is entirely lovely, from the guys manning the door to the bartenders to the servers. And on its best nights, Storyville offers truly excellent food and drink.
Which makes me sad as I sit on this black leather couch beneath flocked red wallpaper, relishing fried oysters, green bean casserole, and steak Wellington. These dishes are wonderful, and I won’t taste them again, because I won’t be back. The thudding soundtrack in the half-empty room sees to that. DiBiccari’s food deserves a real restaurant where people come for the purpose of eating it. I look forward to the day he opens one.