It's important that we get this out of the way first: The Bourbon is about as true to the Louisiana it claims to channel as the accents of Sookie and Jason Stackhouse and vampire Bill on True Blood. Is the cocktail list shockingly limp for one of the great drinking sites on this nation's soil? Is it ridiculous that more of the drinks have vodka in them than Bourbon at a place called The Bourbon? Yes on both counts. Are we sophisticated enough consumers that we can enjoy the restaurant and its food nonetheless? I think we are. Is it good enough to warrant us trying? I think it is.
You don't need to be an Nth-generation daughter of the American South to see the gaps in The Bourbon's claims to even a passing acquaintance with the real tastes and traditions of New Orleans. But I thought it would be instructive to see what one would say. There was a lot of yelling from our Dixie Mafia correspondent. "You do not put coriander in gumbo without risking your Mardi Gras beads being revoked," she hollered, "And let's not even mince words about gumbo being a Cajun rather than Creole dish." At this point the fan snapped out and she began to hyperventilate. When she got to the okra and pumpkin lasagne, she had to retire to her boudoir with a cold compress and a fifth of Wild Turkey.
It's probably for the best, then, that she didn't see that cocktail list. New Orleans has a rich cocktail culture. The Crescent City gave us such greats as the Sazerac and the Vieux Carré, and the perhaps not so great Hurricane. None of them is on The Bourbon's list: a selection of 21 drinks, 19 of them involving no Bourbon whatsoever. Instead there's a bunch of concoctions made with apple schnapps, vanilla and Midori.
Despite the presence of a couple of decent American brews, the beer list is just as much of a puzzling washout. The claim that it has more US craft beers on offer than anywhere else in Sydney is readily questionable. And the wine list doesn't look like it's been written so much as tallied up from stock that was leftover from last time the venue had a facelift.
But this can be fixed. And, with David Jouy walking the floor as The Bourbon's general manager, there's a very good chance it will be. As of 2013, Jouy is probably best known as the maître d' in the restaurant on MasterChef: The Professionals. For the record, he and Marco didn't swap phone numbers after the show, but working with White was a pleasure, Jouy says, because they're both men of the old school, "and were on the same page". (He was also betting Sarah was going to win.) Pre-television, Jouy earned his stripes working for Justin North, keeping things ticking over very nicely on the wine front at Bécasse. There are no plans to build up anything like a three-star cellar at The Bourbon, he tells me, but he'd like to up the number of American bottles and replace the dribs and drabs that currently constitute the list with something a bit more coherent and complementary to the food.
Ah yes, the food. Here's the thing: it's good. It doesn't really have much to do with the food or culture that's supposed to inspire it, but it's good. Putting aside the fundamental misunderstanding of what Creole and Cajun cuisines are and aren't, it's almost like the kitchen has been given a list of the names of the dishes and has then gone about producing tasty dishes that vaguely fit. It's a bit like a culinary equivalent of the dictionary game.
Take the gumbo. In Louisiana, this is a dense, powerfully flavoured soup-stew powered by a very dark, almost burnt roux. It's gutsy, rib-sticking stuff. The gumbo at The Bourbon is a beautifully clarified duck broth. Rather than epic shrimp, chopped up crab and Cadillac Eldorados bobbing in it, you've got wheels of baby corn, shreds of shallot, rings of red chilli and - egad - the occasional leaf of coriander. Give it a poke with your spoon and you'll find some fine dice of smoked sausage hiding in the bottom. It has a deep duck flavour and a rich, persistent chilli warmth. It's got as much in common with gumbo as drone strikes have with due democratic judicial process, but this doesn't mean it's not delicious.
The Bourbon was once The Bourbon & Beefsteak, the name catnip, presumably, to the soldiers and sailors resting and recuperating from the Vietnam War who made up a significant slice of its clientele when it opened back in '67. Bernie Houghton, its Texas-born proprietor, was missing a finger, had been involved with the CIA's covert air missions in Indochina and was an executive of the highly shady Nugan Hand Bank, a CIA front alleged to have been a money-laundering operation. Following Houghton's death, the B&B was sold in 2005 for an eye-watering $53 million, and this brilliant backstory, along with the tonnes of his memorabilia that made the Bourbon the Bourbon, were dumped.
On this freshly scraped slate today we've got a slick fit-out: a stage for nightly live music, an open-air bit for the smoking gallery, and toilets that have what appears to be the Archibald fountain in place of handbasins. It's still night-clubby and thoroughly boozy. The exposed brickwork is decorated with intentionally heavily slopped mortar, and the room is lit by clusters of silvered bulbs. The lovely big tea-towel napkins and the presence of flake salt and pepper grinders on the tables take it well above the fancy-pub level of ambition, yet happily most of the main courses clock in at less than $30, which is downright exotic in the Sydney of 2013.
The person who has been most successful in conjuring the more-is-more, let-the-good-times-roll vibe is chef James Metcalfe. The style of his menu pays homage to both the venue's real history and its New Orleans cover story in spirit, even if it fudges the detail. Metcalfe ran the kitchen at Etch for Justin North, so finely turned-out plates are a given here, even as he cranks the flavour dial way past 11. His take on the classic Cobb is the kind of salad you can make a meal of, crammed with chicken wings, avocado, soft-boiled egg and bacon, but pickled shallots and watercress maintain its edge. The chowder might be way down the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon, but it's no less creamy or packed with clams, corn and bacon for that fact.
In place of ribs, we've got rib, singular - a big, glazed, fatty monster sliced and served with nothing more than the bone as a garnish. Very impressive. Blackened tuna is perfectly forgettable. It's not blackened in the true Paul Prudhomme-style, just char-grilled. Nothing wrong with it, just not that interesting. But the jambalaya is capital-F fun: a sort of loose, spicy risotto bearing prawn, diced chorizo and bacon under a thatch of watercress, chilli and shallot. Metcalfe roasts the red peppers before adding them in, and cuts the other parts of his mirepoix chunky and leaves them all but raw. Authentic? No. Clever and highly edible? Damn straight.
And then there's the pork cutlet. "Grain fed", the menu notes (perhaps superfluously), its 180 grams sit charry, sweet and pink at the bone under an ice-cream scoop of Woodford Reserve butter. The bartenders might have dropped the ball with the whiskey, but not Metcalfe, and here it is enlivening a Café de Paris-like compound that's the best thing to happen to pork since bacon. And there's bacon on the plate too - along with a heap more butter in the smothering part of the smothered greens, tonight comprising cavolo nero, rainbow silverbeet, warrigal and beet greens. It's an epic win, even if it should come with a side of defibrillation.
Speaking of sides, there oughta be a law against serving quartered potatoes as "hand-cut chips". Nonetheless, once you scrape off the "truffle parmesan mayo", these specimens taste pretty good. Fried green tomatoes are crisp but taste of not much, really. Succotash here equals corn (essential) and peas (an outrage), but the best maize-based number is the baby corn, grilled Mexican-style with chilli butter and parmesan.
I'm unconvinced by the desserts - the pecan pie is undistinguished, the beignets more like big doughnuts. Sugar rules. But I like the idea of the bar menu. Annoyingly, it only runs from 11am to three in the afternoon, and then again from 11pm to three in the morning, but the burger is handsome and well proportioned, and the offer of Holy Goat and Pyengana cheddar in the wee hours is a very tempting proposition.
"American flavours as you've never seen them" is the catch-cry at The Bourbon 3.0. They ain't kidding, folks.