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By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Eats
Oct 4th, 2022

Owner Eric Williamson and Chef Sean Welsh have created a place where people can come anjoy modernized Southern staples in a cool atmosphere.

Article by VANELIS RIVERA | Photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK

Menu favorites liked the Smoked Salmon Crostini features smoked salmon spread and cucumber and the Chef’s Specialty is BBQ Shrimp & Grits which is smothered in a New Orleans style shrimp BBQ sauce on top of garlic cream cheese grits.

WHEN ERIC WILLIAMSON BEGAN conceptualizing his restaurant, he knew it would have to incorporate the local history of Ruston as well as references to some of his personal lineage. He hit this intersection when thinking of the road he grew up on, one imbued with tall tales of moonshiners and bootleggers. White Lightning road, now Louisiana Highway 146, is named after this seedy history and particularly refers to the color and kick of what is more popularly referred to as moonshine. “One side of my family had some major bootleggers,” beams Williamson, whose restaurant White Lightnin’ Cocktail and Culinary Company integrate intricately crafted cocktails inspired by the prohibition era with a carefully curated menu of modernized Southern staples.

“I started working in restaurants when I was eighteen,” says Williamson who has also traveled extensively, working in high-tier culinary cities like New Orleans, Denver, and Sacramento where he ended up attending bartending school. On his return to Ruston, he first helped run a local restaurant for several years before partnering with a local Mexican restaurant. He ended up running their bar area, which meant creating many craft cocktails. But when his restaurant of employment didn’t survive the pandemic, he started looking for a spot to unleash his love for prohibition-era cocktails, which ironically is an era punctuated with some of the most iconic blends, such as the Aviation, Royal Hawaiian, and Singapore Sling. “I’ve really wanted to bring that kind of thing to Ruston,” he says, revealing his desire to create a culinary experience that would be built around these classic, trending, and experimental mixed drinks.

“So [I] started mixing some more advanced cocktails at home [and] learning the history,” says Williamson. He began with some famous New Orleans cocktails, also dating back to the roaring era of style and aesthetics. For the Ramos Gin Fizz, created during the late 1800s, he had to master the careful fusion of gin, cream, simple syrup, lemon and lime juice, orange flower water, egg whites, and club soda which is required to get the desired frothy layer. Shying away from the modern approach to the Whiskey Sour, he went with the simple approach of Bourbon, lemon juice, sugar, and a dash of egg white–subtle and elegant. His detail-oriented research and trials opened the door for rounding up ingredients that would further embellish the already heavenly blends. 

The White Lightnin’ bar is not only making their own syrups like honey and ginger, but they are recreating obscure modern classics like the Penicillin. Created by Milk & Honey bartender Sam Ross, this warm and soothing drink is made with Scotch, honey syrup, and sweetened ginger juice. Another contemporary delight uses mezcal which is made from the agave plant. “We make a light-pink peppercorn pineapple syrup for it,” says Williamson, revealing that any mezcal lover will be remiss not to give their Ready, Fire, Aim cocktail a whirl. Ultimately, he highly recommends that customers use the restaurant’s drink menu as a choose-your-own-adventure book. 

“I’ve tried to kind of update and tweak those cocktails to local and modern palettes,” says Williamson, informing that since modern taste leans on sugary drinks, he has had to “swing things up a bit,” as far as flavor blending and ingredients selected. Further pushing the envelope has come in the form of educating his bartenders about the history of the cocktails the restaurant is making. In this way, customers will be able to make informed decisions about the plethora of drinks on the menu. Alongside familiar names, customers will also note modern concoctions, which will include weekly cocktails. In the near future, customers should expect house-made bitters, even more house-made syrups from varied ingredients like sweet potato, and a line of one of the oldest cocktails called shrubs. These interesting mixes feature vinegar-based syrup that create a balance of sweet and sour elements. “It’s an interesting part of history for cocktails,” says Williamson, adding that when it comes to the food and drink menu, he is always open to doing more, which will also show up in the form of milk-washed spirits. “That’s a new big thing these days,” enthused Williamson. To create this compelling mix, milk is curdled and added to a cocktail. It sits overnight and then gets filtered. The result is a smooth, clear cocktail, rich and fluffy in texture.

Holding down the kitchen is Executive Chef Sean Welsh who has some pretty impressive roots in New Orleans, mainly by way of Dickie Brennan & Co, as well as the distinguished New Orleans landmark and creole eatery Commander’s Palace. When Williamson approached him about conceptualizing the menu he came up with thirty to forty recipes focused on seasonings that could be made from scratch which would result in controlling the herbs and intricate flavors going into meals. While Chef Welsh is used to larger kitchens, the small-scale space he now has contributes to his ingenuity. “Like the little miso cups,” he says, referring to the crunchy sweet and sour bowls he is developing for a tuna appetizer. 

The “Small Plates” section of the menu is an assortment of flavors. The savory Cochon Frits are freshly fried pork skins, house-made blackened barbeque, chili-lime, salt, and vinegar. For a lighter choice, try the Smoked Salmon Crostini. This salmon dip includes cucumber, Julienne smoked salmon, black pepper, and dill. More seafood takes the form of their Shrimp Cocktail: seven boiled shrimp, shredded iceberg, and house-made cocktail sauce. 

Meanwhile, the entrees kick it up a notch, primarily by way of their Grilled Pork Chop, which is seasoned with a Kona coffee rub and served with pear chutney and Brabant potatoes (aka “Louisiana fries”). Shrimp and grits is always a classic selection, but at White Lightnin’ they are adding a tangy twist: New Orleans Abita Amber barbeque shrimp and garlic cream cheese grits served with Leidenheimer French bread. Another down south flavor sure to add a touch of the Gulf is their Creole Fish Meunière. For this dish, pan-seared redfish tops creole meunière garlic cream cheese grits and is served with haricot verts with garbanzo beans. 

Diners will not only relish their experience by way of taste, but also sight. That is to say, White Lightnin’ is the kind of place that will tug at your sense of curiosity. Its speakeasy vibe is enticing and mysterious, brought to life especially by the bar area’s hanging pendant lights providing an amber glow and the vintage oak bar display. Further embellishing the escapist tone are two surrealist paintings by Ruston-based artist Emily Ezell, which are best described as pop-swamp dreamscapes. In each, a curvy, longhaired woman is surrounded by doe-eyed alligators and is reaching for or has in hand a bubbly cocktail. 

Ultimately, expediting fine dining dishes in a limited space is no easy feat. Still, Chef Welsh attributes the success of the kitchen to his team and his focus on establishing and building culture. “This is the best crew I’ve ever worked with, by far,” he says, mentioning his right-hand man Zach Bertram. “He’s been unbelievable to me. He has been unbelievable to this place.” While most restaurants function on the division of front of house and back of the house, no such distinction is made at White Lightnin’. “We are house,” stresses Chef Welsh, exemplifying that the mark of a successful restaurant extends beyond just food and service, but also to employee comradery. “People love to come in here and try new stuff,” says Williamson, who is deeply grateful to his Ruston customer base. 

Whether you think you are a cocktail connoisseur or not, broaden your horizons and fuel your gastronomic dreams at one of Ruston’s most enticing foodie havens.