After 20 years executing someone else’s vision in restaurant kitchens, chef Nanyo Dominguez is striking out on his own — and the aim is to create a joyful dining hub that brings together his Mexican roots with the Latin American influences that have shaped his restaurant career.
Dominguez will soon open Bésame, a Latin American tapas bar and restaurant, in downtown New Orleans at 110 S. Rampart St. That location — the intersection of Rampart and Canal Streets, close to the Orpheum and Saenger theaters and two-year-old restaurant Palm&Pine — may sound familiar: It’s next to the site of the Hard Rock Hotel construction collapse that happened nearly two years ago in October 2019, killing three workers and shutting down surrounding streets for 18 months and counting. (Canal Street reopened in April with N. Rampart Street set to follow a month later, but it remains closed in part.)
Still, Dominguez feels good about trying to be part of the corner’s revival with the location, which he signed a lease for in July, and about his concept. “I think a lot of locals crave this kind of variation of flavors, having an option for something bright and light,” as a break from traditional New Orleans cuisine, Dominguez tells Eater. Bésame will focus on seafood — though Dominguez says some products still aren’t available due to Hurricane Ida — with five or six different types of ceviche in the styles of Mexico City, Oaxaca, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. There will be Argentinian and Mexican-style empanadas; Colombian and Venezuelan-style arepas; and bigger plates like seafood paella; pan-seared fish with coconut milk and guajillo; and churrasco with chimichurri. The bar will feature South American wines and Latin American spirits, including “lots of” mezcal, raicilla, rums from the Caribbean, and piscos and brandies from South America.
Dominguez has been cooking in New Orleans since 2015, when he helped open Johnny Sanchez in the CBD alongside now-celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez, after being sous chef at Sanchez’s restaurant in Connecticut. He moved to Uptown’s Tito’s Ceviche and Pisco two years later in 2017 to work as chef de cuisine, where he began receiving recognition for his work with Peruvian flavors under the tutelage of owner Juan Lock. Then, Dominguez helped open Espiritu Mezcaleria, New Orleans’s first mezcal bar, at the end of 2018, as executive chef and partner.
A year and some change later COVID-19 hit; closing Espiritu for a long stint eventually followed. “The pandemic was kind of eye-opening,” Dominguez says. “I was feeling so worried, my income was on hold, and I just felt like I needed to be working on something to feel more productive. I always knew I’d eventually want to be on my own — I’ve been doing this for 20 years now — so I realized it might be the right time.”
Dominguez started researching Small Business Administration programs and microloans — “I got really into it,” he says — and was eventually matched with an SBA mentor in New Orleans who helped him put together a business plan. When Espiritu reopened, he returned to work, but soon let his partners know he was going to pursue those plans.
Dominguez has been working on decor, menu, staffing, and permits since July, he says; Bésame was supposed to have its fire marshal inspection the weekend Hurricane Ida hit — so it delayed. And while he says he feels grateful the restaurant didn’t experience damage or flooding due to Ida, he did lose a few staff after the storm to other jobs, something other New Orleans restaurants have said they experienced. His goal now is to get the restaurant open and start building from there — Bésame seats 60 people indoors, and he plans to eventually add 16 seats to a sidewalk patio, working with the Downtown Development District to do so. He knows he’s up against a challenging time “for every industry,” but says with Bésame, success is important not just for him, but for “a corner of the city that’s been in tragedy, disrepair, and abandoned by our city officials over the last two years.”
“I want to highlight Latin American food, music, spirits — the whole culture — represented by the many wonderful people from Latin countries that live in this city,” Dominguez says. “I think it’s the perfect place.”
Bésame, at 110 S. Rampart St., is projected to open by mid-October. Stay tuned for an inside look at the restaurant before it debuts.