Cover Story

Man About Downtown

by Anna Purdy

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nidal Balbeisi opens his most ambitious restaurant in Lafayette.  And he's not done yet.
By Anna Purdy    Photos by Robin May

Standing on the corner of Polk and Vermilion streets with Lafayette's Gay Fire Fighter statue pointing toward it, there was Stan's Downtown. For years it was a boisterous dance club with a second floor that was terrifying to see bow and sway with the weight of Jager-soaked dancers. It hosted DJs and comedy shows, maintaining a loyal happy hour crowd.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nidal Balbeisi opens his most ambitious restaurant in Lafayette.  And he's not done yet.
By Anna Purdy    Photos by Robin May

Standing on the corner of Polk and Vermilion streets with Lafayette's Gay Fire Fighter statue pointing toward it, there was Stan's Downtown. For years it was a boisterous dance club with a second floor that was terrifying to see bow and sway with the weight of Jager-soaked dancers. It hosted DJs and comedy shows, maintaining a loyal happy hour crowd.

Standing two stories tall, the building is more than 100 years old and used to be a Masonic temple. It stood alone among the 1960s and '70s oil boom architecture of downtown; while others are a creamy concrete and stucco or shellacked brick, this building was rough and tall and red, like a ruddy-cheeked Cajun cowboy. It was a fun place, sure, but it needed rehabilitation.

Nidal Balbeisi saw its potential, and under his guiding hand Trynd was born. With a capacity nearing 1,000 it has the potential to be the most successful bar-restaurant combo downtown, offering lunch, dinner and live performances, and cigar-, whiskey-, martini- and wine bars as well as patio and balcony seating and the option of being rented for private functions.

Like the dining/entertainment concept itself, Trynd's Saturday, March 19, grand opening was beyond compare. Servers dressed like seraphim straight out of a Studio 54 party greeted guests at the door and floated through the party. Booze of any type was flowing freely. The Louisiana seafood industry would be thrilled by just how many oysters were shucked and consumed. Every nook and cranny was filled with drinking, eating, glittery people. The Lombardi Trophy stood for picture-taking, and I got to watch at least a dozen of my fellow Louisianans nearly drop it while posing in the outstretched-arm-Facebook-profile-picture-shot way. (That sucker is top heavy!)

The event was huge, splashy, almost ostentatious, but the vibe was too happy and celebratory to feel like a put-on. Tickets were expensive, absolutely, but they went to great causes: Payton's Play It Forward Foundation, Protect our Coastline and Feed the Children. Payton dined in Trynd's private dining area, and I realized how odd it must be to eat dinner while people jostle to peer through a gold curtain at you, wielding a camera. One of Payton's assistant coaches, Joe Vitt, came, as did Karen Hegner, director of Payton's charity foundation. Later that night the coach hosted a charity auction where sports memorabilia from the Saints, LSU and Colts were offered next to things like a pair of Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves. Trips to Costa Rica and different wine countries rounded out the biddings.
"Lafayette made us proud with their support," Balbeisi says. "Coach Payton was very impressed."

Several days later it was estimated that around 700 people attended Trynd's grand opening; the windfall for the charities from ticket sales and the auction is still being tallied.
"The key to his success is that no one will ever work harder. Anyone who ever works for him will never work harder than the man who owns it himself," says Amy Jones of The Jones Communication Company, which represents Balbeisi.

Born in Jordan to a family with 17 children, Balbeisi came to the U.S. to study at LSU in 1994. His international flight landed at O'Hare in Chicago, and his connecting flight to Louisiana was canceled. With $97 in his pocket, Balbeisi didn't eat because he didn't know where his next dollar would come from.

He studied architecture while working in restaurants to support himself. After spending six months in residential construction and development in Baton Rouge, Balbeisi decided to go back to what he really loved. In 2001 he moved to Lafayette after examining the restaurant industry and finding the easy location on Pinhook for his first Zeus restaurant. After borrowing money from family and cashing in some of his wife's stocks, Zeus opened in August of the following year, taking over the space occupied by Sahara, a Mediterranean restaurant. This began Balbeisi's life in Lafayette.

"The reason they call it the American Dream,'" George Carlin said, "is that you have to be asleep to believe it." Yet there are people who come to America every day in search of that manifest destiny, of making their way. The night of Trynd's opening Balbeisi gave a speech in which he talked about how he came from having $97 to his name to owning several businesses, and how America gave him his dream while Lafayette gave him the chance.

Balbeisi's real ethic and probably the secret to how and why he built so many restaurants in a short time comes from what he calls his most prized possession. In the dining room for all to see is an old vault. "This is where I keep my money," he tells me. When he opens it there are rows upon rows of crystal stemware. Under each glass is a name that corresponds to the one etched on the glass. "The most important people to me are my customers," he says. There is no official club to join, no membership or dues paid. It includes the names of customers who support him, friends who don't necessarily spend the most but were there to encourage his dream hatched in a city down the road when Balbeisi's American dream to be a restaurateur was realized.

There is an adage among chefs that first one eats with one's eyes. Not only must the food be beautiful to look at but its surrounding décor should echo this. Starting there, Trynd looks nothing like the Stan's, where half of Lafayette under 40 years old fell up the stairs to get to the club from the smoky, foot-beaten bar.

Chef John Powers, from left, Balbeisi and business manager
Bryan Jewell review a presentation.

It was a collaborative effort that gave the two levels of Trynd very different feels, with Pecot & Company Architects designing the spaces and the bulk of the interior finishes left to the creative talents of architect Sidney Bourgeois. The downstairs entrance is white and welcoming with a formal dining room off to the left. The exterior brick was left exposed, and beneath it, rimming the walls, is Art Deco-style bench seating with a deep sage green and brown brocade print. Here is Trynd's milky white marble raw bar where patrons can enjoy 25-cent or 50-cent oysters during happy hour, raw or char-grilled respectively. The kitchen can be seen, which is always as interesting of a show as what is happening on any stage.

Through the same main entrance, but off to the right, is the second bar, Trynd's martini bar. This has a much more modern feel with an accessibly lit full bar and pub-style chairs with metal legs. The feel is clean, smooth and, yes, trendy. Balbeisi points to the corner and mentions that iPod docking stations will be set up in several spots around the venue so you can keep your eye on your iPod, iPad, i-whatever while assuring yourself you won't be without communication due to lack of juice. From this bar you can walk out to the large patio. Cigarette smoking is verboten anywhere in Trynd - yes, even in the cigar bar - but that isn't a worry for the nic-fitters because of all the outdoor spaces. Back into the walkway through a leather-stamped door and up the stairs is the area known as the Sicilian Room. Veer right into the cigar and whiskey bar. Here, nearly a dozen types of cigars are offered. This bar is small, intimate, reminiscent of a secret back from an 1850s English gentleman's club. From here you can spill out onto the huge balcony big enough for a private party overlooking Vermilion Street. It's probably called the Sicilian Room due to more than an homage to Trynd's food - the ballroom's dark-stained wood, leather seating and black-and-white checkered dance floor with reds and golds make it all seem like a place Sinatra would perform after knocking back whiskey neat.

What's great about Trynd is that each area feels like its own individual space. Each area warmly flows into another, but like an understanding family there is personal space between the connections. One statement that keeps bouncing around is that no one has seen anything like this downtown in...ever?

"The thing that makes downtown great is the number of locally owned international restaurants, and we didn't have Italian," says Jaci Russo, co-owner of the Russo Group and neighbor to Trynd. "It's great to have that all factored in together now - one more great piece of the pie."

Balbeisi fraternizes with patrons, from left, Jake Smith,
Julie and Charlie Mahfouz, and Ava-Kate Smith.

According to Gina Aswell of the Downtown Development Authority, "Downtown Lafayette is thrilled to welcome Trynd into the district's eclectic and vibrant culinary scene."

This is all true. Another truth is just how difficult it can be for anyone to open a business, especially one that serves alcohol and one that seeks to open in downtown Lafayette where ordinances have ranged from comical to strict to bizarre.

Balbeisi had a tough time opening Trynd for a variety of reasons, mostly do to how tough it can be to open any business but especially any business that serves demon alcohol in downtown Lafayette. No one is willing to discuss it now, and everyone is playing nice. If you run a business in Lafayette - especially with the incestuous nature of downtown - you must be willing to share your sandbox with the other kids. A hint of the trouble comes from Downtown Development Authority's official answer when asked the reason for its initial trouble with Trynd and how DDA now feels: "We encourage all projects enhancing the district and adhering to the ordinances. We welcome that growth and are pleased that Nidal was able to follow the ordinances in place." From what several sources have said, Trynd's desire to expand its dedicated bar space flew in the face of certain ordinances. Plotting the architectural design of a business is tough as it is and having to dance before, betwixt and between various rules can be difficult.

"I don't know if I would agree with the characterization that he had a hard time building downtown," says Russo, one of his early detractors who has since come around. "As I understand it he went to zoning and asked for a variance, which they pretty much toed the line on; there is an ordinance about the size of bars, and he wanted to make a bar bigger and they kind of don't want that, so he made some adjustments to the restaurant on the first floor so that he can do the addition, which is great."

Some of Balbeisi's best friends and
customers have personal wine glasses,
which he keeps in a special cabinet.

Whatever the motivation for any opposition Trynd faced in the early stages of this project, no one is complaining about the end result of Balbeisi's vision.

For good reason, Downtown Lafayette is determined not to have too many bars. But we need a cohesive center, a downtown that has not just retail and restaurants but places to live, a place to buy groceries. In other words, a real live downtown, Geppetto, just like they have in other progressive cities. Trynd certainly isn't just a bar but a fine Italian restaurant that will offer live music in the upstairs ballroom and occasionally DJs. It's an ambitious project - one downtown should feel lucky it has an opportunity to support.

The kitchen, run by Chef Dean Mitchell, features true Italian food. Balbeisi was inspired by a paucity of great Italian food downtown.

"We have traditional [Italian dishes] and the non traditional," says Balbeisi. "A lot of people associate Italian food with certain items. But Italian people eat different things, a lot of things people aren't aware of unless they travel to Italy. That's like saying Americans eat only a burger. Italian food is not only a fettuccine pasta. There's much more to it. That's what we're trying to put on our table, and we've impressed the people so far. Thank God."

On Monday of this week, a message appeared in inboxes across town:

My Dear Friends, I want to take this chance to thank all of you for being with us for our Grand Opening. Almost 700 of our friends and family joined us March 19th. I came to this country with $97 in my pocket. Today, my wife and I stand as living representatives of the American Dream. You made this dream come true. I look forward to seeing you on many nights to come at Trynd.
Sincerely, Nidal Balbeisi

And while Trynd may be Balbeisi's crowning achievement thus far, he's not nearly finished - not with Lafayette, and especially not with helping develop a real downtown.

A hospitable restaurateur, Balbeisi personally greets his customers
and likes to get to know them.

**Trynd of Living

**The night before Payton's arrival it was all about the good life - the food.
By Anna Purdy
On Friday, March 18, one day before Trynd's gilded grand opening with New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, dubbed "The Trynd of Giving," we went for dinner. Here is an idea of what you can expect:

Appetizer: Beef Carpaccio
Carpaccio has only been around since the 1950s. Traditionally it is beef very thinly sliced (almost translucent, it is so thin) or pounded flat. Though first served with a type of mustard sauce, it is now served in a variety of ways. In the case of Trynd it is laid out on a small platter and drizzled with white truffle oil, slices of mushroom, spicy arugula leaves and shavings of Parmesan cheese. Carpaccio's danger is that it can run dry, but this was tender and scrumptious, light enough to begin a meal but satisfying enough so that you don't gnaw your arm off waiting for the entrée.

Entrées: Slow Cooked Lamb Shank and Roasted Half Duck
My father considers it a deficiency in my DNA that I am not crazy about lamb. It's his favorite meat to cook, and his eyes seem to melt in the sockets when he spies lamb on a plate, yet I am immune, which is exactly why I had to try this.

The shank itself was enormous (most of the entrées at Trynd could feed two people). It was perfectly cooked without a trace of the vaguely gamey taste lamb can have. I could have eaten the whole thing myself.

Its side was a cauliflower potato purée, which might have been my favorite thing on either entrée. Cauliflower is caramelized then strained through a ricer or blender with everything you would find in mashed potatoes. This is one of the great recipes made popular by the low-carb bunch - it tastes remarkably similar to potatoes and is a great way to use a vegetable mostly found hanging out with ranch dressing.

Moving on to the next dish, I must note that the only fat better than bacon fat is duck fat. The skin of duck, if done correctly, attains a crisp yet meaty layer to delve into and through to the meat, flavoring everything. This duck is marinated for a while in Steen's syrup; then a glaze made from satsumas is applied while cooking to give it a deep bronzed glow. Its side was a wonderfully cooked kale that tasted like it may have been prepared with ham hock or something pork. "I don't like kale," said my dinner companion. "Just freakin' try it," I responded. He did, and then he kept stealing it off my plate.


Dessert: Panna cotta with blackberries**
Panna cotta can be roughly described as an Italian pudding. Milk, sugar and cream are simmered and mixed with gelatin then cooled and topped with anything from cooked or raw fruits to sweet sauces. This dessert is dense without feeling too heavy and has just enough sweetness, not enough to erase your entrée.