Food & Drink

In New Orleans, Wild South Restaurant Dances with the Seasons

How to work with the Gulf South’s ever-shifting bounty? Change the menu weekly

A table with plates of food

Photo: Randy Schmidt

Bret Macris is executive chef at Wild South, which recently opened on a shady, quiet residential street in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. This is the third coast on which he’s set up shop—he’s also been chef at Campanile in Los Angeles and Rosewater in New York. 

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With each move, Macris had to freshly acquaint himself with local farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and mushroom foragers—he prefers not to get his ingredients “off the back of a truck,” he says. Which means each time he’s had to recalibrate. When he left California, he learned new seasons. (“What do you mean you don’t have cherry tomatoes?”) In New York, he came to understand what drives a seasonal menu in winter. (“You’re making everything you can with sweet potato.”)

And when he moved to New Orleans in 2016, his education began all over. “Okra is plentiful, and you can do cool things with it,” he says. “And collard greens and kale and stone fruit. And then the strawberries, which are sometimes amazing and sometimes like cardboard. So you have to learn to navigate that.” 

photo: James Collier for Paprika Studios
Gulf shrimp and strawberries with caviar.

The nineteenth-century building that’s home to Wild South has likewise gone through changes. For a time it was a bar. Restaurateur Michael Stoltzfus took it over in 2018, and with his then-partner Kristen Essig he launched Thalia, a neighborhood bistro. The pandemic upended those dreams, and so they converted the building to a commissary, providing meals to go. Soon after it became Lengua Madre, where Stoltzfus worked with chef Ana Castro to create an omakase-style restaurant that highlighted exquisite and delicate Mexican dishes and flavors. 

When Castro left to open her own place across town, Stoltzfus saw the opportunity to reimagine the place once more. He had been offering a tasting menu at Coquette, his much larger flagship restaurant. But it was difficult to manage that in a place that also served an extensive a la carte menu.

So Stoltzfus teamed up with Macris, who was most recently a chef at New Orleans’ famed meat-centric restaurant Cochon. “It was my voice at Coquette,” Stoltzfus says. “Bret’s bringing his own voice here.”

Macris welcomed the challenge of creating weekly menus based on what was available and offering dishes served in either three or five courses.  “I have an insane encyclopedia in my head, a pretty wild Rolodex of what goes with what,” Macris says. “It’s 100 percent improv.”

photo: James Collier for Paprika Studios
The bar at Wild South.

The menu tilts heavily toward seafood—unsurprising given the access to Gulf fish. One week the menu will include flounder with beets and green garlic, the next a crab salad with avocado and green strawberries. It’s not all ocean: He also sources rabbits and quail from a small co-op in Mississippi, and has made head cheese from rabbit.

Macris says that since arriving in New Orleans he’s seen purveyors offering more top-quality products as chefs raise the bar. These include the more delicate farmed oysters, a change from the oysters when he first arrived—“huge and gross and the size of my tongue,” he says.

photo: James Collier for Paprika Studios
Little Moon oysters with swordfish bacon, green garlic, and trout roe.

Wild South has a small bar designed for more informal visits, with Ryan Plas directing the wine program and Jason Kaplan overseeing the bar. Guests seated here can opt out of the tasting menu and order from a limited list that usually includes a couple of dishes from the tasting menu plus some favorites. The latter includes “ugly toast”—a sort of reverse grilled cheese with thick, locally baked bread seared with cheese on the outside, delivering what Macris says is everybody’s favorite parts—“those crusty ends and the crusty bits of cheese.”

photo: James Collier for Paprika Studios
Tuna ’nduja.

Among the early hits on Wild South’s ever-shifting menu have been a lion’s mane mushroom prepared with black garlic and curried egg yolk, and a creative tuna ’nduja, a seafood twist on a classic Italian sausage. Finish a meal off with a Mi Amaro from the bar— a Manhattan variation with orange, elderflower, and cola—and you’ll have a recipe for a memorable evening.