New and Noteworthy
When it comes to new restaurants, New Orleans is a battlefield these days, with entrants duking it out for attention. The current victor is GW Fins, a big, loud place in the French Quarter jammed with decorative-looking people. Fins takes its fish and shellfish seriously. Cold-smoked oysters are placed in shells heated to 375 degrees, then rushed to the table sizzling. Gossamer wrappers enclose lobster mousseline dumplings, smooth as charmeuse. Lemonfish, whose beefy flesh makes it perfect for grilling—here over oak and pecan wood—is so simple as to be daring.
Peristyle, the reincarnation of Anne Kearney Sand's cult restaurant that burned down three years ago, is hyped just as loudly. Sand loves France—maybe a little too much. Her pan-roasted squab, crisp sweetbreads, and pissaladière would all mean a lot more with a lot fewer ingredients, but she's a well-grounded cook; a little imagination-harnessing and she'd have a winner.
Restaurant Cuvée is the latest venture from the team that created the nineties fixture Dakota across Lake Pontchartrain. The voluptuous comfort food—"shepherd's pie" of pulled duck and smoked chicken; duck liver foie gras and rice croquettes—is good enough on its own, but the real reason to reserve here is the city's finest, most interesting wine list.
Scott Boswell's Louisiana heritage and training in France, Italy, and Asia inform the menu at Stella!, which looks like somebody's romantic idea of a restaurant in the French countryside, circa an unspecified past. Shrimp—and—guinea hen gumbo, shellfish bouillabaisse, lobster-and-Brie risotto, and duck spring rolls manage to avoid collision, earning Stella! its exclamation point.
New Orleans prides itself on being adventurous at table, but Australian chef Frank Brunacci may be calling its bluff at Victor's, his unstoppably inventive French restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton. The sumptuous space is adorned with miles of beveled mirror, Louis XV—style chairs, and candlestick lamps whose live flames are diffused by proper, dainty cloth shades. Amid these trappings, Brunacci seems to obtain an almost perverse pleasure in using ingredients like shark bacon and percik (an Asian spice mixture), and in serving dishes such as chestnut-crusted grouper cheek and pancetta-wrapped lobster. His version of bananas Foster, New Orleans's rummy signature dessert, is glamorized with confiture de lait ice cream and a mini Belgian waffle. Overall, Victor's is a high-wire act that Brunacci mostly pulls off.
Luckily for the less courageous, eating in the city's hotels doesn't have to mean cumin beignets and daikon-root confit. The beloved Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel still serves dishes that vow never to scare the horses—perfectly professional citrus-scented turtle soup, butter-poached lobster, spiced bread pudding—in a room whose heavy brass chandeliers, treacly country-scene paintings, and bronze statuary ensure that its army of fans know that this is a big-occasion "splurge" restaurant.
If mussels marinière (cooked with white wine and shallots) were the only thing the Bistro at Maison de Ville did well, which I'm afraid may be the case, it would still be worth a meal here, especially if you snag a table in its leafy courtyard. The deal is weirdly the same at one of the city's newer hotel restaurants, René Bistrot in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel: just one dish, jumbo lump-meat crab cakes, expertly executed.
The Queen: Susan Spicer
After the blackened-redfish hysteria of Paul Prudhomme and before the wham-bam ascension of Emeril, there was Susan Spicer, the foodiest of New Orleans's food ambassadors—and the motor driving the top-rated Bayona, which she opened in 1990. Although Spicer no doubt enjoys all the attention and the chance to spread her gospel, which is more global than that of many New Orleans chefs, she has always seemed to be in the business for the right reasons. You can see it in her face. She loves cooking.
While I'm distrustful of the cheaper spin-off restaurants of brand-name chefs like Spicer, I humbly and with a full stomach bow to Herbsaint. It doesn't look like much—the one stab at design, hideous wall lights fashioned out of iron ribbons, with dunce-cap shades, could be retired. But who cares, with food this satisfying, prices this gentle, and views of the clanking St. Charles Avenue streetcars this adorable? At the ovens is Spicer protégé Donald Link, whose winy beef short ribs are the hottest dish in New Orleans. Braised with sugarcane and flavored with tasso (smoked and sassafras-rubbed Cajun pork shoulder), they present an almost subversive dichotomy: crusty-dry on the outside, tender-moist inside. All the chefs in town wish they'd thought of the dish first. Since they didn't, they crowd Herbsaint on their days off.
Link has the same authoritative way with his herbed rillettes, buttery croque-monsieur, smoky ham-hock gumbo, and grits cakes filled with shrimp and green chiles and sauced with tasso cream. Many New Orleans restaurants collapse at the dessert course, but not Herbsaint. Shortcake is accessorized with jewel-like citrus segments and intensely perfumed Meyer lemon cream. Warm chocolate beignets with squirting liquid centers are a messy danger worth courting. The coconut-cream-pie connoisseur I happened to be dining with said more air had been beaten into the filling of Herbsaint's version than any he had ever had before.
Herbsaint's success has cast a long shadow over Cobalt, Spicer's newer and showier outpost in the Hotel Monaco, where the crowd is more interested in fruity cocktails than in the designer appetizers. And to me the food was sharper and more interesting at Herbsaint than at her more formal and expensive flagship Bayona, where she roams from prosciutto-wrapped monkfish to chiles rellenos to Israeli couscous.