Boxing Room, the new casual spot from the Absinthe folks in the former Citizen Cake digs at Gough and Grove, won't be opening for a couple of months, but in the meantime executive chef and New Orleans native Justin Simoneaux and pastry chef Bill Corbett have been working out menu ideas at a series of preview dinners at Absinthe. The next dinner, the night before Mardi Gras on March 7, will feature some classic New Orleans dishes like deep-fried alligator, pan-fried catfish, and crawfish étouffée, and Simoneaux says it'll be a learning experience to see how his San Francisco audience reacts to dishes that aren't so much modern twists, but are a little closer to home than what he's served at the previous couple of dinners. "I'm refining the techniques, not really reinterpreting the recipes," he tells Grub Street. "I want it to be like the food I grew up eating, like the stuff my mom and grandmother cooked. But I'm trying to cook it even better than it was."
So far, he says his gumbo has been a hit, and that was a relief. And he intends to keep the opening menu at Boxing Room as straightforward and unadorned as possible, which will also help them keep prices down. (Sidebar: The name came before the restaurant concept, and comes from the original use of the space, back when the building was a shirt factory in the 1800s. The room at that corner of the building was where shirts were boxed for shipping.)
"I want to let the things be what they are, no need for manipulation. The restaurant needs to be approachable to a lot of audiences, rustic, and that should all help keep it pretty inexpensive."
The plan right now is to have an à la carte menu that stays constant throughout the day, with Louisiana staples on it like barbecued shrimp, Cajun boiled peanuts, hush puppies, and shrimp po'boys. Then there will be rotating lunch and dinner specials highlighting specific classics, like jambalaya, different stews, étouffée, etc.
Simoneaux says his favorite restaurants that he keeps returning to are Salt House and Range, and he likes the Cajun food they do at Front Porch, so these examples give us an idea of the vibe he'll be going for with Boxing Room.
As for the dessert end of things, Simoneaux hasn't given too much direction to pastry chef Bill Corbett who joined the Absinthe team recently after impressing many at Coi. Bill says Justin just wants things to be kept extremely faithful, "So don't expect any exploded beignets or anything like that." He hopes to dress up some classic New Orleans desserts just by using fresher or slightly different ingredients for example, different dipping sauces for beignets, which will be fried to order. He worked up a Bananas Foster bread pudding for the last preview dinner, made with banana bread and bourbon bananas, and at the upcoming one you can expect a pecan praline sundae with pecan caramels and a brown sugar blondie. "It's a sweeter dessert than what people expect from me," Corbett says, "but it's really faithful, and it's going to be super gooey and sticky, a total guilty pleasure."
He draws the line at food coloring, however, and for the King Cake he's attempting for Mardi Gras, he'll be taking a more San Francisco direction with the traditional colored sprinkles and Royal icing. "It'll be made with brioche," he tells us, " and I'm experimenting with some naturally colored sugars, like a hibiscus sugar, a saffron sugar, and a mint sugar. It's something a little more natural but still true to the dish."
For research, Corbett's been going through an old Time-Life cookbook on Cajun cuisine, and turning to Simoneaux for taste tests. "I've never been to New Orleans," Corbett admits. "So I'm trying to use Justin and his palate as a resource to get things right."
The current opening timeframe for Boxing Room, as it stands, is "spring," but no one wants to get too specific about that until the concrete gets poured.
FYI, the March 7 Boxing Room preview dinner still has some tables available (call 415.551.1590), and look for a full preview of Simoneaux's opening menu as soon as it's ready.
Boxing Room - 399 Grove Street, at Gough - Set to open in mid- to late spring
Where to Eat for Mardi Gras in San Francisco (and the East Bay) [Grub Street]
Earlier: Boxing Room Delayed a Touch, But Sample the Food Next Week [Grub Street]
Is Absinthe Eying the Citizen Cake Space? [Grub Street]