You would know better afterwards, though. John Besh's cooking is worldly but distinct, far-reaching but personal. Memories of his handiwork linger on the metallic cool of lavender sorbet resting on a raw oyster, or the nakedness of a peeled pear tomato skimming between your teeth. Or fennel pollen, or grilled figs, or the tiny purple, oniony flowers that seem to show up in every August dish. These ingredients aren't typical New Orleans, but they are classic John Besh. He plies them in the same way he uses lump crabmeat and Louisiana fruits: with a spirit that has one hand promised to the bayou while the other feels its way to the edges of contemporary American cooking.
Raised in Louisiana, Besh worked at the Grill Room, trained extensively in Europe and relishes weekly trips to a local Asian supermarket. Still, his way with food is more multifaceted than multinational. Cinnamony, "Moroccan-spiced" duck breast with grilled figs is exotic; arranged over soft sweet corn polenta, its welcome is universal. While European pastry-making techniques may have inspired a rustic tart of Louisiana peach halves stewed to amber, I'm certain it could cause natives from Shanghai to shiver with pleasure.
Illuminated by a pinkish chandelier glow, his colorful, detailed preparations are like fleeting museum pieces. I yearn to deconstruct 10 of them, but it's more enlightening to dwell on my favorite habit of this complicated chef. When an ingredient ignites John Besh's imagination, he dotes on it, studies it and works it into a dish like you might plan an entire outfit around a favorite scarf. He makes it his own.
Take fennel, the white bulbous vegetable with its celery crunch and taste of licorice dew. Besh hews fennel into dainty slaws, blanches it for summery salads, slices it against the grain to slip beneath red snapper, and uses its feathery leaves for garnish. And when he's ready to illustrate how buttery seafood will unfold itself in fennel's presence, he sears two scallops rare and dresses them with fennel three ways: caramelized to jam, shaved to a wisp and a sprinkle of nutty fennel pollen. You get to taste the learning process, mistakes not included.
He studies figs, tomatoes, lavender and beets in the same kaleidoscopic way, weaving them through his menu as if the richest duck, the funkiest cheeses and the sweetest crab exist to showcase the many faces of the products that beguile him. During one dinner, a sweet corn hybrid called Silver Queen appeared in a smooth sauce slicked under veal short rib ravioli; nearly raw kernels were stuck into a custard and served alongside pan-fried skate; for dessert, the same white corn appeared spun into soft ice cream, which melted over a cylinder of sweet corn polenta.
Besh challenges the idea of "salad" with a precious handful of baby vegetables diced to confetti and presented with a pot of tarragon aioli. His "BLT" means whole buster crabs, rare lettuces and heirloom tomatoes cupped between toasted brioche. Only chilled soup made with tart tomatoes, golden beets without flavor and almond dessert soup with a glug of almond extract were too literal for my tastes.
Entrees are less heady, though no less spectacular. Besh was chef at Artesia Manor in rural Abita Springs before joining forces in the CBD with former Grill Room maitre d' Ali Sharifi and first-time restaurateur August "Duke" Robin. You'll catch his farmhouse alter-ego hiding out in this middle course. If he seasoned a rack of lamb with anything more than salt and pepper, I couldn't taste it through the meat's own fineness; paired with a fragrant grilled peach, it achieved what all prior lamb dishes hinted at.
As you might expect from a $3 million renovation, there's more to August than obsessing over the chef's obsessions. You can lose yourself in its soft lavishness -- tucked into the secluded back room, drowning in Dwayne Savoie's crazy-exclusive wine list or splurging four hours on four courses.
Rumor has it there's a bartender with chemist-like abilities, though I got a Sazerac without bitters from one of his failing pupils. Service in the dining room is also a crapshoot. When entrees arrived too early, one waiter prompted my friend to scrape the remainder of her salad onto her entree plate so he wouldn't "get in trouble" with the manager. Of the five employees who served me during another meal, the two that deserved my tip were low in the hierarchy. Only these two set in motion the wealth of knowledge that's available when you work around a chef like John Besh.
We have a similar opportunity to learn. In fact, I've no doubt that my next meal in the expansive world of August will reveal a side of fennel yet to exist.