In the imaginations of Darren Carr and Eric Simpkins of the Lawrence in Midtown and Hieu Pham of Crawfish Shack on Buford Highway, the collaboration is the legacy of Hoa Nguyen — a Vietnamese refugee who opened a casual to-go shop in New Orleans’ 6th Ward, and later expanded it into a hot spot, with a dining room, bar and garishly elegant decor.
In real life, Bon Ton has a similar setup, with takeaway from the storefront and kitchen section of the space, and full service in the dining room and bar, which is situated up one level. Overall, the look is ’70s-’80s shabby chic, with a lot of tongue-in-cheek touches, including a portrait of Nguyen.
The menu, which is encased in a laminated placemat, features the kind of boiled and fried seafood platters Pham made famous at Crawfish Shack.
But it also includes items that reflect Pham’s mix of Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, including sweet and spicy cold noodles, and Lo Lat beef rolls wrapped with betel leaves.
And then there’s the likes of a Nashville hot oyster roll, a Cajun shrimp burger, crawfish smoked Gouda mac and cheese, and an unusual applewood-smoked snow crab preparation.
Recently, Carr, Simpkins and Pham were at Bon Ton to work out the final details with executive chef Matt Floyd, sous-chef Eric Brown and bar manager Tyler Blackgrave.
“This is a great collaboration with different experiences from other restaurants,” Pham said. “We’re able to bring together a lot of the dishes that we wanted to showcase. The cold noodle dish is something Eric and Matt worked on. It’s similar to several Thai dishes with peanut sauce, but we’re using egg noodles instead of rice noodles.”
Simpkins agrees that the variety of influences and experiences are making for a lively exchange of ideas.
“When we started conceptualizing this menu, Cajun and Creole with Vietnamese was the soul of the food,” Simpkins said. “But in general, it’s sort of a love letter to Buford Highway. And I love that Matt’s family is from New Orleans and he worked at places like Restaurant August. Eric was our opening sous-chef at the Lawrence, and he went on to places like Restaurant Eugene and Miller Union.”
Of course, the bar will be a big part of the spirit of Bon Ton. And once things get going, it’s designed to attract a late-night crowd reminiscent of the heyday of Top Flr.
The bar menu includes house classics, such as a Sazerac on draft, and some frozen drinks, including a take on a Pimm’s Cup, and a Vietnamese Irish coffee. But the Bon Ton Hurricane is a throwback to the original version, shaken and served over ice, rather than frozen.
“Tyler created our own syrup for it,” Simpkins said. “It’s a four-day process, where we macerate strawberries, then we start adding a couple of purees, and we wind up with this amazing strawberry-passionfruit flavor. We’ll probably end up using that in some other things, too.”
Pham summed up the Bon Ton concept as creativity and collaboration.
“As you’re eating our food, you see the collaboration and then the ideas that come from our backgrounds,” Pham said. “We want the food to be very memorable with flavors that people haven’t thought of or experienced. Food is an evolution.”
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