It’s been a wild year for everyone, and one of the backbones of New Orleans — the restaurant industry — has had an especially hard time staying open and profitable through the shifting phases of life during COVID. The menus at the Latter Hospitality Group’s hybrid Claret/Bower concept in the Lower Garden District make no bones about this, stating: “We are thankful to see you! In our unprecedented climate, we are offering select dishes from both Claret and the Bower. Hey, when life gives you lemons… We are thrilled to have this opportunity, offering items from both concepts under one roof. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for the continued support, patience, understanding, and kindness.”
Claret opened in the Framework development on Magazine Street — which also houses Dirty Coast, Krewe, and MVMT by Romney, to name a few of their business neighbors — in May 2019 as a wine and cocktail bar, with a few small plates on the menu and, notably, a spacious patio. The Bower opened as a full-service restaurant in the Framework space adjacent to Claret for all of three days in March 2020 before… well, you know. The proximity of the two properties allowed management to get creative and flexible when rules changed overnight concerning the licenses required to remain open for business.
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Claret ostensibly remained closed to operate the whole enterprise on the Bower’s restaurant license, but the new operation was still able to benefit from Claret’s patio, wine list, and the reputation it had established for itself in its year of pre-pandemic business.
“With our current setup, we are aiming to attract those who just want a cheese board with friends, those who want a three-course dinner, and everything in between,” said Marketing Manager Nancy McDaniel. “It has been really nice to see how we can accommodate different needs and wants under one umbrella.”
The arrangement is now allowing the Bower to make a name for itself in its own right, and there are some elements of the Bower’s concept that remain unchanged even in this year of so many changes. Namely, owner Mark Latter and chef Marcus Woodham were interested in creating a very locally-sourced menu that put vegetables front-and-center as an homage to the neighborhood’s origins (it’s not called the Garden District for nothing!).
A sweet partnership with a local farm
A “bower” is a trellised walkway that was common in 19th-century gardens, and indeed, greenery cascades from the overhead beams throughout the restaurant to successfully evoke such an image. During my interview with Latter in July regarding the closure and [still not-quite-complete] move of Tujague’s, the original asset and crown jewel of the empire, he proudly told me, “Chef Marcus will make you want to eat vegetables, even if you’re not vegetarian!” (We were interviewing at the Bower and I couldn’t help slipping in a few questions about the surroundings.)
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Those vegetables, as much as possible, come from a darling little farm on the West Bank called Sugar Roots Farm, which I had the pleasure of visiting on a picturesque October day. Executive Director Brooke Bullock gave me most of a tour before handing over the reins to lead vegetable grower Leila Rezvani, when she had to shoot out to pick up some horse feed (you know, farm stuff). What began as more of a petting zoo with a small vegetable garden has blossomed into a larger-scale, incredibly sustainable farm under Bullock’s leadership. She and Rezvani have a wealth of agricultural knowledge between the two of them and have enjoyed using all the biodynamic weapons in their figurative arsenal to deal with the challenges the Louisiana land presents.
For one, the soil here is very clay-based and its nutrients are largely inaccessible to many plants. So the first step is to build robust soil, which is a long process that involves a lot of waiting and a bit of trial and error.
They don’t use any artificial fertilizers or pesticides but instead enhance the soil with compost they cultivate and manure from the farm animals. Then they plant cover crops, which help to give them an idea of what will grow well, and which eventually get turned under to continue bolstering the soil. Of course, everything is extremely seasonal.
In July, Latter rattled off ingredients like purple okra and peppers that the farm was providing to the restaurant. By October, the beds were featuring leafy greens, radishes, and a stunning crop of roselle hibiscus. Both Bullock and Rezvani seemed excited for the milky oats that were showing promise in the current cover crop, and expect that to be a prominent element of the next rotation.
Moisture can also present a problem. Rezvani told me they were lucky it had been a bit of a dry October because the soil retains so much moisture, and (surprise!) can be prone to flooding. They’re reluctant to drastically alter the natural drainage pattern in the area, so are having to experiment with raising beds and doing minor irrigation work.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a good Louisiana story without some talk of gators: the farm is down to just one duck, and while they can’t say for certain where the others have gone, gators are among the top suspects. (Thankfully, the horses, cows, pigs, llamas, goats, chickens, and faithful dogs on the farm have avoided any run-ins with predators.)
Around the time Bullock took over as executive director at Sugar Roots, Felicity Property Management bought the land on which the farm operates. Felicity also happens to own and manage the Framework development that houses the Bower and Claret.
When Bullock expressed her desire to do a restaurant partnership to Kendall Winingder, one of Felicity’s founders, it didn’t take long to connect the dots to the Bower. “It sort of just happened,” Bullock said. Now Chef Marcus visits the farm from time to time to gauge what’s coming in and inform his menus, and Sugar Roots staff routinely provide him with some of the freshest produce in New Orleans.
“We sent over a batch of arugula the other week that we’d harvested literally an hour before,” Rezvani informed me.
That arugula is now featured in the pistou that adorns the gulf fish on the current Bower menu. Collards and mustard greens from Sugar Roots are served alongside the pork chop, their radishes and turnips appear on the house pickle plate, and those lovely roselle hibiscus flowers make a gorgeous addition to the LGD cocktail. It’s exciting to imagine how this partnership will develop as Sugar Roots continues to put down, well, roots, and expand their offerings of super local, super sustainable produce.
The Bower is located at 1320 Magazine St. Its hours are 4-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Happy Hour is from 4-6 p.m.
Sugar Roots Farm is located at 10701 Willow Dr. Visit their website for information on touring the farm, or booking one of their educational classes on topics such as gardening, composting, and chicken keeping.