A new Lower East Side restaurant and bar, in part inspired by New Orleans, has a dark and mysterious quality even before entering the premises. The door is practically unlit, with a cryptic red diagram that gradually resolves into the restaurant’s name, Canary Club. Downstairs is a jazz club that turns into a dance club later in the evening, but once inside, the restaurant on the ground floor seems more elegant than its other usages suggest.
The cozy wood bar features red stools and backlit booze bottles; tables spill out in front of it, paved with tiles and flanked by lush banquettes and bent-cane chairs. The ceilings are high, the color scheme fawn gray and light green. Without the aid of garish posters or kitschy objects, the place actually feels like New Orleans.
The chef is Tadd Johnson, who went to the French Culinary Institute and previously served as executive chef at Holy Ground, a none-too-good but marvelously decorated subterranean barbecue in Tribeca. At his disposal at Canary Club is a wood-burning oven and a lively imagination in creating and embellishing dishes, sometimes with Cajun and Creole flare, sometimes not.
Going back to the 1940s, New York has always had a handful of restaurants inspired by New Orleans. Our collection includes five or six at any given time, but undergoing lots of turnover. Recently one of our best, Infirmary, closed on the Upper East Side, depriving us of its praline beignets, boudin balls, and especially, the roast beef po’ boy with debris gravy. Luckily, we still have Gumbo Bros. near downtown Brooklyn, offering several versions of the namesake soup; and Tchoup Shop, which is set in a bar in Bushwick and captures the down-and-dirty aspects of Cajun bar food, including red beans and rice, and a fried catfish po’ boy.
Canary Club would be worth visiting if only to taste the oysters roasted in the wood oven (six for $21). Sluiced with a marvelously buttery red sauce and sprinkled with chives, they are as good as roast oysters get — undergoing a transformation of texture that, given the gooeyness of raw oysters, is damn near amazing.
Also go for a pair of seafood dishes. The seafood boudin — served with an oddball egg yolk rouille that sits upon the plate like spilled pink concrete — resembles something you might find sold from an ice chest in a gas station in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. In other words, really good, though the serving seemed meager for $22. A much better deal is NOLA prawns ($21), four big specimens in a sprightly red broth dotted with green peppers. Make sure you suck the heads of the shrimp for the fat that lingers therein; the broth demands to be sopped with bread, but unfortunately the $5 bread here in not only tough, but nonabsorbent.
The menu is slender but adventuresome, with 15 small dishes and a pair of desserts. It seems geared toward the nightclub crowd who visit the downstairs club, and putting a complete meal together is something of a challenge. Some of the dishes were weak, like the baby carrots cooked tempura-style and dotted with black sesame seeds. Fronded with fresh dill, not only is the flavor combination a little skewed, but eating them is a bit of a slog. These baby carrots are tough!
I sat on the fence when it came to petite cochin and clams ($19). The idea of pork belly and bivalves is not a bad one, all lard and brine, though seeming more Portuguese or Chinese than Cajun and Creole. But when the bowl came, it was small and strewn with flowers, and there were only a few small clams in their shells, making the dish’s terrain hard to navigate for a small result, flavor-wise.
I’d go back to explore some of the things I didn’t try, like roasted eggplant with green olives and giardiniera (Sicily had a big effect on NOLA cooking), or maybe go again for the roast oysters and shrimp boudin. But really, the restaurant feels more like an expensive resource for captive club-goers than a standalone restaurant. 303 Broome St, between Forsyth and Eldridge streets, Lower East Side