Chef Dustin Brien has planned a Mayan Apocalypse menu for Friday at Salu, and hopes to be around on Saturday to keep cooking.

Photo of Dustin Brien

If the Mayans were right, Friday will be the end of the world, and Salú is preparing to feed New Orleans one last meal. New Chef Dustin Brien at the Magazine Street tapas restaurant has planned a special "End of Days" menu with Mayan-themed dishes that can be ordered a la carte or purchased together for $30.

Brien hopes the Mayans were wrong and the world makes it to Saturday. He's new to New Orleans and Salú, having moved here in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Isaac - so soon after the storm that he didn't have power when he and his wife moved into their apartment. He is trying to acclimate himself to the New Orleans food scene and finds it intimidating. 

"Par down here is so much better than par anywhere else," Brien says. He and his wife try to get out and explore the city's restaurant once a week, but he doesn't have to stray far to experience the city's food culture. "There's a corner store down the street from my house, and on my day off, at least one meal a day I'll be down there to get a hot plate. It's so good. That's one of the challenges of cooking down here: 'I can go to the corner store and get average food. Why am I going to go to you and give you $13. He's charging $2.50.'"

Brien came to New Orleans from Boston, and his culinary background started as a dishwasher. He spent two years at culinary school and has been in the business 16 years, largely learned on the job by working his way through the stations of the kitchen. Much of his training has come through the mentorship of Chef Stephen Sherman, who let him try out dishes, some of which succeeded, some of which didn't. "Sometimes he'd let me fall on my face," Brien says, after which they'd dissect the dish to figure out why it didn't work. He hopes to bring that sort of learning atmosphere to his kitchen.

When he came to Salú, Brien didn't look to make radical changes to the menu. "It's a good menu," he says. "I didn't see the need to come in here and blow it up." Instead, he tweaked it, bumping some of the least-loved tapas in favor of new ones, bringing the lunch menu more in line with American expectations for lunch - more sandwiches - and fine tuning some of the preparations to improve dishes.

"I'm not nouveau," Brien says. "I'm not about that." He is trying to work within the vocabulary of traditional tapas, though he is not exactly recreating classic ones. A new small plate involves a common ingredient - lentils - that are braised, and instead of serving them with game bird as might happen in Europe, he is pairing it with a seared scallop and his own pepper jelly. "The dish is banging," he says. "People are going to love it."

He sees small plates as an opportunity. 

Tapas at Salu"When you have an entree, people are looking for a protein, starch and vegetable," Brien says. "When you do small plates and tapas, you don't have to do that. You can take one ingredient and let it shine."

The challenge of tapas pose in American restaurants is that our restaurant culture is at odds with the way they're meant to be eaten. American diners tend to want their food to come out in one or two courses, while tapas are ideally part of a night spent at the table as the food and drink come at a leisurely pace dictated largely by the kitchen, which cooks at sends out the right dish at the right time.

"Dinner's meant to be an event," Brien says. He and his kitchen are having conversations about how to give the people what they want, but help them want what the restaurant is made to deliver. He also understands that he has to balance the desire to present the tapas experience with business realities. "We want people to have the tapas experience and spend their time here, but on Saturday night, I've got to turn that table," Brien says. "It's still a business." 

That said, "Nothing is a better advertisement than people walking by and seeing a full restaurant."