The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom (or at least a Buddha-like profile): Marisol, Ralphs on the Park, Café Adelaide, the New Orleans Grill (formerly The Grill Room @ the Windsor Court), Gabrielle, Eleven 79, Brennans, August, & the Mediterranean Grill.
Okay, Ive had numerous visitors in-and-out over the past month, so Ive had an excuse to go try some of the newer restaurants that arent on my usual dining itinerary, as well as a couple of standards. Overall, Ive been pleased. Heres the lowdown.
First, let me clear the air with a little rant: Why does everyone insist on serving a champagne brunch on the weekends to the exclusion of savory dishes? The decadence of a late breakfast is highly overrated. And, no, I dont want your vile bellini/kir royal/mimosa concoction, regardless of its bargain price!
Saturday afternoon at Marisol.
Out on the patio, as usual, enjoying the unseasonably cool day was lovely. We all started off with a nice gazpacho, with lump crab meat. Its not as good as mine, but they make a tasty version, nonetheless. Id have forced it through a finer sieve, and then garnished it with a few larger chunks of vegetables, but thats more of an aesthetic quibble, rather than one of flavor. The other appetizers were standards: the thai-fusion mussels and some sort of lightly fried mollusk from New England. Wed all prepared ourselves to gorge on some sort of braised meat (they are consistently great at Marisol), but the brunch offerings were decidedly more breakfast-leaning tex-mexican influenced. I had an enormous chulupa-thing, which was a bit heavier than Id have liked. My sister-in-law ordered what appeared to be scrambled eggs topped with ropa vieja, which she enjoyed, and my brother had shrimp chiquilles, which he packed away with gusto. The service was also at its standard level of affable neglect that I find charming during a leisurely luncheon, but annoying at supper.
Sunday afternoon at Ralphs on the Park and an early Friday supper.
I was always a fan of Gerards Downtown, so I was expecting good things, but I was hesitant to try the new place; the vagaries of management being what they are, I was sure Id be disappointed with the offerings of yet another Brennans place. I am pleased to report my misgivings were unfounded: For both lunch and supper, Ralphs exceeded my expectations in the food category, with service and ambience lagging somewhat behind. The dining space itself is nice enough, though the bar was cramped and filled with a cacophonous din (caused by a mere dozen patrons); Id strongly oppose being seated for dinner at any of the 4 or so tables in there. The Sunday luncheon clientele seemed to be mostly post-mass Metrician families with their moderately well-behaved broods in tow. At both the afternoon and evening meals, we were offered the option of a full vegetarian menu, not just the single appetizer or entrée that so many other high-end restaurants pawn off on our herbivorous companions. The selections were heavy on heirloom and exotic produce (radishes, micro-greens, mushrooms, and the like) and looked pretty good, but only the sis-in-law chose to graze. At lunch, we all had fish preparations, which were quite good, without being overly heavy; supper pushed us into more perilous territory: pates and fried oyster mushrooms. The only complaint on the food was the decline of the signature dessert from Gerards, the Theobroma. What sang with occult allure in the dark confines of the St. Charles space was rendered a charmless and rather dry brownie-in-sauce under the glare of a cheery City Park sunset.
Ought to give up now. The food, from start to finish, was flagrantly average, with little or no attention given to detail. The mussels with chorizo appetizer I ordered, while good, included 3 un-opened bivalves. (Now, were it a heaping serving a la La Crepe Nanous this wouldnt have been a problem, but at Café A, there are only a dozen mussels in the bowl, meaning a full 1/4 of my serving was not fit for consumption.) My dining companion, who very clearly stated his nut allergy while ordering, was none-the-less served an entrée sprinkled liberally with poisonous pecans. (Much to the dismay of our waitress, who, to her credit, immediately took the plate away. In fact, the waitress was the only redeeming part of the Adelaide experience its the kitchen that needs to get its act together. ) The few crusts of bread we were able to wrangle out of the indifferent bussers, were pretty good, but the butter plate was never replenished. A vapid wine list didnt help matters much either. Oh, and lets not forget the general air of colonial Victoriana that the place oozes from its ersatz zebra-stripped walls. (It was unclear whether the designer was trying to add faux grain to the wood paneling or if he were making an attempt at an animal hide motif.) Regardless, the effect is unpleasing to the eye, and it evokes less of the splendor of Empire than it does the dissipation of that out-dated worldview (due in great part to the poorly knocked-off quality of most of the nick-knacks). If not never again, then at least not any time soon. Kevin Vizard never recovered from the collapse of his eponymous restaurant on magazine, IMO.
The New Orleans Grill
Change is not a bad thing, in-and-of itself, but so often, change for its own sake fails to innovate or improve on the original. Thus is the fate of the newly re-christened New Orleans Grill. Moving the entrance into the Polo Lounge has made for an awkward traverse in the evenings, and the morning-side entry corridor is even less convenient, since it routes diners through the main elevator bank, rather than through the dedicated glass-walled lobby lift. The food was all lovely, and most of it tasted pretty good, but I have to say, none of it moved me. It was executed with masterful technical precision, but the post-modern interpretations were self-referential to the point of absurdity: the culinary equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. Take, for example, the bouillabaisse. No fish stew, this! Instead, the plate comprised a mélange of fish and shellfish bound together in a shrimp stock aspic. It was accompanied by a mound of saffron granita, a shot-glass of seafood foam, and a tomato flake (which was actually quite good think of a rich tomato sauce, freeze-dried into a communion-like wafer). The wild game mosaic was equally over-the-top, though visually stunning. Each chuck of game meat was meticulously enrobed in paper-thin prosciutto or bunderfleisch and then artfully packed into the pate dish, and baked into meat-loafishness. The entrees were a bit more restrained, though the waiter was somewhat overzealous when he poured the béarnaise over my already demiglaced chateaubriand. Oh, and it seems they auctioned off their wine cellar to pay for the renovation, since the new list was a meager 4 or 5 pages or the usual suspects.
An old friend showed up in town unexpectedly at around 8:30 on tulanes graduation night, so we were scrambling to find someplace that could seat us. After getting the polite, but expected, shove-off at several other places, we got in for a 9:00 at Gabrielle---oh how times have changed; They were out of the fresh tomato salad, and we werent terribly hungry, so we split a house salad and the sausage appetizer, and I had a filet with a poquillo pepper sauce, while dining companion ordered the duck. Anyone remember the lacquered duck Kevin Graham used to do at the Grill Room, lo these many years ago? Well, the guys at Gabrielle have perfected what was already an outstanding dish. This rendition was perfect. There was a very very subtle sweetness from satsumas, but it was not at all the cloying, clinging sugar of yore, and the meat was perfectly succulent. The skin was pressed into a lovely sheet of crackling and served on the side. It was all mounted on a stack of shoestring potatoes, and, as if things needed to get any better, the serving was easily enough for two. It made a kick-ass late breakfast the next morning.
My parents loved this place, because it reminded them of the clubby restaurants of their youth in NOLA. The best thing we had was the Caprese salad, a staggeringly large tomato interwoven with basil and fresh mozzarella, then dressed with a light balsamic vinaigrette. The calamari (paneed) was pretty good, too. The entrée portions were equally enormous, and we all had food to spare. The rack of lamb was a bit too sweet for my brother (the bread-based crust could have been cake in a previous life) but otherwise, everyone was pleased, even the dog, to whom a trifling thing like overly sweet crust was of no moment. We were somewhat disappointed in the wine selection, since no of us is conversant in Italian vintages. The Barolo we ended up drinking was good, but for the price, Id have been much happier with a nice Burgundy or Chateaunuef-de-Pape. No room for dessert, needless to say, but the guy getting fellated in the mens room (Are you out there Ms. Red Dress?) provided the table with some après dinner amusement while we waited to settle the tab.
Yes, there is more. . .
At the largesse of my boss and his wife, both our labs were treated to the vaunted 1pm breakfast at Brennans. This was my first encounter with this particular animal since 1984, when the entire family was in for the worlds fair. Being a somewhat disinterested tyke at that time, I cannot offer any meaningful comparison. However, by my current standards, I was horrified. The signature egg dishes were all available a la carte, but even so, what a flagrant rip off! Each plate was some rendition of 2 poached eggs and hollandaise, served over a variety (puff pastry, spinach, Canadian bacon, etc) of bases. For the 7 of us (6 egg orders, 1 luncheon soft-shell crab @ $18, and 1 bananas foster) the pre-tip bill was about $200. For a dozen eggs, 1 banana, 1 medium sized soft-shell, and several pounds of butter, I think that the tab was beyond excessive. I can only imagine what it would have been if wed order anything other than water to drink. Let me reiterate thats $30 per plate. Totally out of line. I am offended by the very notion.
We went to August last week, and I have to say, the place has decline precipitously. The service was laughably bad. The only guy with a clue was the food runner, who presented each plate with a verbal rundown of what it was and a careful flourish of placement. The food was still outstanding, except for my slightly undercooked serving of fish, but quite frankly, by the time I ate this meal, I think my liver had become 2/3 foie gras, so I didnt bother to have the dish replaced. The truffled gnocchi with crabmeat was almost indescribably good, though, I think the lump crab is almost beside the point in that dish. I dont know if the perfectly able staff they used to have moved into the new steakhouse venture at the casino, or if there is some other reason for the plunge in service quality, but it is distressing that this contender for the best-of-the-best has suffered such a blow.
And finally, The Mediterranean Grill
I needed a break from the complexities of fine dining, so I waddled down the street to my local middle-eastern place for a light mezze platter. This newly re-opened joint is totally adequate, if perhaps a half-step behind Monas in consistency. However, the falafel here are the new standard by which falafel shall be judged. After the very nicely spiced chickpea patty is formed, they seem to roll or sprinkle them with sesame seeds, then toss them into the fryer. The result is a beautifully crusted pillow of starchy wonder that surrenders to the tooth with the most rewarding snap one could ask for. The order I got to-go on a subsequent visit suffered from the Styrofoam bound journey and fridge-time, and they lacked the crispy perfection of the two I had fresh at the restaurant. Oh, well.
I can scarcely eat anything with flavor at this point. Brown rice with steamed veggies is all thats on my menu these days.