The last of Heights-based restaurant group Treadsack's three fall openings began serving diners Thursday night. Billed as a "love letter to the Gulf Coast," Bernadine's joins British American steakhouse Hunky Dory and farm-to-table Thai restaurant Foreign Correspondents as three of this fall's most eagerly anticipated newcomers.
Before diving into the ways in which the idea of the Gulf Coast cuisine served at Bernadine's is different than the Southern cuisine served at recently opened restaurants like Southern Goods, Bramble and The Durham House, let's start with the restaurant's design. Like Hunky Dory, credit for the Bernadine's look goes to Austin-based architect Michael Hsu, the same firm that built high-style restaurants like Uchi and Oporto Fooding House & Wine.
"The early interpretation was that it was a seafood restaurant: this kind of Nantucket, blue and white striped, really traditional . . . That’s what we started looking at, and we were not into that," Treadsack co-owner Chris Cusack tells CultureMap. "We felt that . . . the Gulf Coast has more in common with the idea of cracking a beer on the beach and eating fresh oysters out of the water than it does with sitting on Martha’s Vineyard."
Towards that end, Bernadine's design captures the Gulf Coast's industrial feel with weathered steel panels and corrugated plastic over the bar. Canvas panels in the dining room recall ship sails and oyster sacks.
"The Gulf landscape is a really distinctive landscape compared to the East Coast or the West Coast. It’s very industrial, and it’s very beautiful in its own way," Treadsack director of restaurant operations Benjy Mason adds. "That was a huge part of what we asked for, and I think a huge part of what Michael Hsu’s office came through on."
Gulf coast culture
Turning to the food, executive chef Graham Laborde's menu has sections labeled raw bar, snacks, firsts, mains and sides. Snacks include ranch-dusted pork chicharrones and sweet corn and pimento croquettes, while the firsts include smoked ribs with popcorn and gumbo ya-ya.
Seafood figures prominently throughout and not just via the raw bar; local fish that's served over grits and topped with cold pickled shrimp looks like a particularly appealing entree.
With both pork and beef options, land lovers have something to enjoy, too. Ideally, the variety gives people the flexibility to pop into Bernadine's for a snack and a cocktail after work, a light dinner built around a couple of firsts or a full-on feast.
"I think a lot of people will hear about what Bernadine’s is doing and think fish, seafood restaurant. And the answer to that is, yes, there’s seafood on the menu," Cusack says. "Or they’ll think Southern restaurant, so there must be dishes with grits. There are definitely dishes with grits on them. They’ll think, OK, fried, and yes that as well.
"It’s all those things. It’s not only those things. Our continuing challenge is to do our best to represent the culture and the food of the Gulf Coast, not just parts of it but as much of it as we can."
Ask Laborde about a signature dish, and he cites the cochon de lait au presse. First seen during a Kipper Club dinner, the dish features different parts of a pig that have been smoked, braised and roasted that's pressed into a cake and pan-seared until the edges are crispy. The combination of flavors and textures has been designed to exceed diners' expectations for what pork dishes are capable of.
"Oftentimes, I think pork on an entree plate, the expectation is a pork chop or it’s nothing. This is not that," Laborde says. "You can taste the different cooking methods. It’s never going to be tough. It’s just delicious."
Pastry chef Julia Doran's desserts take their inspiration from Junior League cookbooks of the '50s, '60s and '70s. While Laborde explains that he and Doran collaborated on the ideas for the dishes, he left the execution up to her. "Julia Doran is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. Sometimes you just have to get out of her way," he says.
Cocktails are an important part of Gulf Coast culture, and Treadsack bar director Leslie Ross's cocktail menu features classics like the mint julep and the Sazerac, as well as a frozen hurricane and the intriguing-sounding "Coke and peanut highball."
Laborde, who Cusack famously described as the "Slumdog Millionaire of Bernadine's" due to the way his personal history and professional experiences make him the right fit to lead the concept, brings experience at high-profile New Orleans restaurants like Commander’s Palace and Stella to the role, as well as a stint working for Jonathan Jones at Concepción. Although he has never served as the executive chef of a restaurant this large before, Laborde says being part of a restaurant group has helped him get ready for the challenge.
"Those guys make it easier," Laborde says about partners like Mason and Cusack. "I’m never going to say it’s easy, but, when you have the support staff that we do, they make it easier to find answers for the questions you have. That’s the hardest thing is sometimes you have to ask for help, and the help’s there."
Bernadine's is open 5 pm to 10 pm Sunday through Wednesday and 5 pm to 11 pm Thursday through Saturday. Lunch and brunch will follow soon.