The Times-Picayune – The menu is taking shape for The Little Gem Saloon, a long-forgotten cradle of Crescent City jazz that’s about to swing to life again on the corner of Poydras and South Rampart streets. Back at the turn of the 20th century, the Little Gem was a haunt for jazzmen like Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton. Despite its prominent place in music history, the building has sat shuttered since the 1970s.
Now, after a $5 million renovation, it’s about to reopen, likely during the last week of this year, as an upscale bar, restaurant and jazz club.
The new saloon’s food will reflect the type of Creole fare found on tables in Bolden’s and Morton’s day.
The executive chef is Robert Bruce, whose peripatetic career has taken him through some of the city’s most notable kitchens, including Commander’s Palace, Upperline and Emeril’s.
For Little Gem, Bruce said, he’s gone back to the books, particularly Lafcadio Hearn’s Creole Cookbook, first published in 1885, and the Picayune Creole Cookbook, first published in 1901.
“Lot of slow cooking, lot of braising, great classic Creole recipes, traditional techniques, that’s what we’re going to do,” Bruce said.
Some dishes, such as the redfish vinaigrette and deviled eggs remoulade, will come from Maylie’s, the beloved CBD restaurant that was right across the street from the Little Gem building. Maylie’s, which closed on New Year’s eve 1986, was owned by Bruce’s step-grandfather, Willie Maylie.
“All he would let me do was peel French bread for bread pudding, shuck oysters and mop,” Bruce said, of the job he had at Maylie’s after he graduated from culinary school at Johnson & Wales University and earned a degree in hotel restaurant management from Florida International University.
But the experience was formidable, and Bruce would go on to spend a chunk of his career not far from that spot. He was executive chef of Smith & Wollensky steakhouse, which occupied the old Maylie’s building until Hurricane Katrina. (Today, the space is home to Walk-0n’s Bistreaux & Bar)
At Little Gem, Bruce will helm the kitchen for the restaurant, which will have about 90 seats downstairs and 100 seats upstairs in the jazz club. The building’s restoration, led by designers Bockman + Forbes, will reflect an early 1900s aesthetic.
Developers of the project are Nicolas Bazan and Charles and Tim Clark. Bazan, director of neuroscience at LSU Health Sciences Center, owns Nicolas Bazan Wines and is the father of Nick Bazan, owner of Rio Mar.
Another familiar name involved with the project is Chris Ycaza, the former general manager and wine director of Galatoire’s. Ycaza has signed on as the saloon’s GM.
Bruce calls the project the most exciting restaurant openings he’s been involved with. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve worked in 40 restaurants,” he said. “I’m pumped.”