Strike out east from the red-light charms of the French Quarter and keep going through the hipster homes and pop-art covered renovated warehouses of the Bywater. When your way is blocked by a hulkingly functional wall of freight train cars, turn around and you will see a distressed brickwork and plaster building that looks just as in-place here as it would in a French mountain village.
Inside, the illusion is not dispelled; you find yourself a dingily lit cave set floor to ceiling with wooden shelves laden with wine bottles. You have stepped through a portal into the Old Country. But your crossing between worlds is not done yet – pick a bottle and follow the sign in the corner…
… into an leafy courtyard with trees festooned with bunting and fairy lights, glowing with the light of mosquito coils and space heaters, with tables full of fellow drinkers and a lean-to containing live band. A little enchanted kingdom that seems magically bigger on the inside.
Bacchanal, in spite of its name, stands in gentle rebuke to a city compelled by excesses. The menu is Mediterranean restraint and the drinks are more for sipping than quaffing. What is generous is the spirit – live music is on offer every minute Bacchanal is open (whether the crowd is there to warrant it or not), and when I came the courtyard was playing host to lost and wayward chefs from a closed-up restaurant in Chicago – their pop-up barbecued oysters and cochon du lait being sold to benefit hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.
Rich and decadent as well were the sounds of Helen Gillet – a Belgian cellist who uses a loop pedal to layer scratching and tapping on the back of her instrument with the strings and her own voice to make a wall of sound that builds complexly, almost unbearably to a trippy crescendo. She has a regular Monday night slot at Bacchanal, at their meat-heavy “Primal Nights”.
The rest of the time, simple European fare is on offer. You can pick your cheeses from the shop and they will be brought to you with artisan breads, olives, candied nuts and chutney, or you can get small elegant plates like chargrilled broccoli with romesco, almonds and ricotta or baby octopus in red wine with leek and cauliflower puree.
Overall Bacchanal just radiates that elusive kind of effortless cool that comes from doing something really well while not seeming to try too hard. The results show as well – a packed courtyard even on a Monday night. As they don’t take reservations, my advice has to be: come early, and come often.
600 Poland Avenue
New Orleans, La. 70117