Char-grilled oysters. Buffalo oysters. Red beans and rice. Boudin. Pork cheeks. Deviled eggs. Charcuterie. Shrimp po boy. Sweet potato fries. Fried chicken. Mac-and-cheese and peas. Red velvet cake. Whole roasted cauliflower. Crawfish. Country fried steak. Biscuits. Fried shrimp. Roast beef po boy. A variety of New Orleans cocktails, including (but not limited to) Sazeracs, Hurricanes, and frozen hand grenades.
The above isn’t part of a menu. It’s a list of dishes that, over the course of about 24 hours, chef Jason Santos and a few members of his business team sampled. Although it may sound like a vacation, perhaps a rather gluttonous one at that, this was a work trip. Santos, who owns and operates two Boston restaurants, Abby Lane Food & Spirits and Back Bay Harry’s, brought his crew to New Orleans this summer to get a feel for the atmosphere he wants to create for his latest restaurant project, scheduled to open this November.
Santos fell for what he described as the “essence” of New Orleans when he and his girlfriend visited for the first time earlier this year. “That feel is what I want to try to create,” said Santos. “I want to try to capture that vibe, that relaxed hospitality. I want to replicate it in Boston.”
His new restaurant, which will be located on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay, is called Buttermilk & Bourbon, and he’s quick to point out emphatically that it’s not a New Orleans-themed restaurant, it doesn’t have a Cajun menu, and what he’s trying most to do is capture a feeling, not specialize in any particular cuisine.
He brought both Jim McGloin, who will be his chef de cuisine at the new restaurant, and Colleen Hagerty, his general manager, so they could experience the charms of the city that caught Santos’s imagination. Both have worked with Santos on different ventures over the years, but the three have never done anything together from start to finish.
“I wanted them to experience this place,” said Santos. “They needed to see and experience it in person.”
One of the first stops on the whirlwind food tour was Felix’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar, one of two landmark oyster bars located across the street from each other on Iberville Street. The other is the Acme Oyster House and their rivalry reminds a visitor of the Boston pastry shops Mike’s and Modern. Though skeptical, Santos was talked into trying Buffalo-style oysters, and in the end, quite enjoyed them.
And so the process was repeated at Cochon, Toup’s Meatery, Parkway Bakery, Willie Mae’s, Sazerac Bar, Domenica, Daisy Duke’s, and several bars along the way. Highbrow and lowbrow, award-winning restaurants and late-night local favorites, and everything in between. Dishes that sounded different or simply delicious were ordered. The trio ate off each other’s plates and sampled each other’s drinks.
Santos wanted the group to absorb as much as they could and he wasn’t talking about the food necessarily. He pointed out patios and chandeliers, the way hostesses called patrons “mama” and how, if the food was worth it, like Willie Mae’s fried chicken, nobody cared how long it took to be served. No one took notes and hardly anyone even took photos. Santos wasn’t there to steal recipes or copy anyone.
Over and over, Santos used the word “hospitality” to convey what he was trying to get at, and he meant it in the true sense of the word, where a guest feels really welcomed at a restaurant. “I want to bring Southern hospitality to New England,” Santos said.
The new restaurant, which was formerly home to BarLola, is located below street level and has an outdoor patio, brick walls, and cozy rooms quite reminiscent of New Orleans, even if it’s not to be a New Orleans-focused place. Santos calls the cuisine simply American, with southern influences.
Santos, however, did bring some ideas back from his trip. At the time of this writing, his prospective menu features Buffalo-style oysters. To be fair, it also features Champagne on tap, something which is pretty novel for both New Orleans and Boston.