Sometimes I inexplicably enter places with preconceived notions. At Restaurant IPO, I expected to find a slick, modern space filled with preened hipsters who were not only too cool for school but also too cool for you. What I discovered was a calming space with partially exposed brick walls, pictures of bucolic Louisiana scenes, rustic wood accents, old-fashioned filament light bulbs and handwritten specials on a chalkboard wall.
Our foray into this bastion of small plates began with Fire Roasted Corn & Crab Bisque, Pequeno Tacos and Roasted Duck Crepe. The soup was a very rich bowl full of corn with subtle spices and even more subtle crab—meaning none. The overall flavor was decent, but it went unfinished. Three phenomenally crispy mini taco shells arrived next, filled with redfish ceviche, avocado relish and andouille bits that were like tiny pieces of jerky heaven. The andouille was a tasty standout, but we all found the fish dominated by onion flavor. At our waitress’ suggestion, we ordered the duck crepe and found that this was what we had been waiting for: an extremely large, over-stuffed crepe with heaps of well-flavored duck and mushrooms spilling out. One friend noted the “good mix of flavors.” Another pronounced it the best so far while doing a happy dance.
Needing more food to feed our hungry table of four, we decided upon an evening special, Bacon Lady Apples, as well as Loco Portabello and Curried Mussels. With its mix of spicy honey glaze, crisp, salty bacon and sweetened goat cheese with an implied heat all stuffed into a tart apple, the off-menu special was incredibly interesting and well executed. Another big hit was the portabello. A creamy amalgamation of chicken, chorizo and Manchego pilled on top of a roasted portabello mushroom, this dish caused one friend to declare, “I could eat two more and be happy.” Receiving an equally strong, though not positive, reaction, the Curried Mussels were described on the menu as “Sweet and spicy coconut curried mussels.” What we got was a shockingly sweet sauce that so overwhelmed the delicate mussels that none of us could take more than one bite.
Craving a palate-cleanser, we all agreed a salad was in order. The Heirloom Salad was exactly what our weary taste buds needed. Fresh mixed greens and tomatoes dressed with a green goddess dressing, it was delightfully refreshing. Add to this a bountiful sprinkling of fried okra, and we had a bona fide winner of a salad.
Palates refreshed, we dove into the Divers in Nage. Tender, al dente scallops served with a saffron sauce and candied fennel were satisfying if a bit too pepper-dominated. But none complained, and the plate went back empty.
Four mouths are a lot to feed, so we traipsed onward and ordered Grits and Grillades and Pasta-ella. Though it was listed under “Southern Tapas,” the grillades was a big portion. Firm, creamy, immensely rich grits were topped with pork that seemed to all of us to have hints of cinnamon. It was crowned with a fried quail egg that, when broken, added an unctuous gilding to the dish. The Pasta-ella completely divided our table. Our waitress described it as jambalaya-like while the menu called it “a take on Spanish paella.” Two of us found it to be a poor composite of neither, while the other two thought it had a pleasing Carolina vinegar sauce/sauerkraut-like quality.
Wanting no more savory dishes, we all agreed it was dessert time. One couple chose the Chocolate Duo, while the other went with the Sweet Potato Bread Pudding. Composed of a to-die-for chocolate and chicory crčme brűlée and a chocolate espresso soufflé that was cake-like with a velvety molten center, the Chocolate Duo was best described by one friend: “I could have done away with the whole dinner and just eaten this.” But as good as the Duo was, in my opinion, it didn’t hold a chocolate candle to the wondrous bread pudding. With small, fluffy nuggets of sweet potato nestled among luscious, sumptuous bread, it was the softest, creamiest bread pudding I’ve ever had.
At this prime spot on the hippest street downtown, the food was well paced and came out incredibly fast. Be warned, though: The Office is just above IPO, and on the night we dined, the music upstairs made the walls shake and the conversation difficult way too early. We all wanted to linger a bit longer, but the music and incoming bar crowds made that impossible. Final note: On the way home, my companion blurted out, “I can’t remember when we’ve had a dessert that good.” In a meal full of highlights, with only a few lowlights, that’s saying something.