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Beauty and the Bistro 

With inspiration from Le Cordon Bleu, artsy trappings and that side of French fries, MAISON BLEU approximates the leisurely Parisian dining experience without fear of bankruptcy.

In current restaurant speak, "bistro-style" seems to cover any venue with a modicum of Euro flair, a few French words on the menu and fries offered as a side dish. So it was with curiosity but fleeting thoughts of France that I awaited last spring's opening of Maison Bleu "Bar & Bistrot" in the Omni Royal Crescent Hotel. How gauche of me. Not only is the head staff of Maison Bleu's kitchen imported from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but with a few exceptions, its food, wine and ambience also speak fluent French.

With Picasso-esque etchings in big windows and shiny brass domes built into olive green ceilings, the essence of Maison Bleu is more like a picnic in Les Jardins du Luxembourg than a steamy night at Le Moulin Rouge. A continuous street scene mural that could pass for a New Yorker cover traverses soft yellow walls where mirrors don't. Throughout the montage, random unclothed women sit together at sidewalk cafes, walk poodles past policemen and cross busy streets in red pumps with a hilarious innocence that might move you to loosen your tie and order that creme brulee after all. Jacques Brel, Nina Simone and moody French pop artists serenade each slice of buttered baguette, every Nicoise olive plump with leathery sweetness.

If the Omni were in the heart of Paris, I would return from a drizzling morning at the Rodin Museum to lunch on its poulet au pastis served in white, covered crocks. Two pieces of slow-cooked chicken sat in still life with a soft stew of carrot and fennel stems, warm tomato concasse and a subtle, anise-flavored sauce coating squiggly dumplings of spaetzle. At the end of a long day in damp, candlelit cathedrals, I would ask for fat, salty fries tossed in parsley, a simple bowl of orange mussels steamed in sharp white wine, and shallots to be brought to my room to eat without intellect. And I would commence nights on the town with a kir royale at the restaurant's mirror-backed bar.

But it's not in Paris, and few New Orleanians ever will sleep at the CBD hotel. For most of us, the airy Camp Street restaurant is as close as we'll get this year to a seat along the Champs-Elysees. If we don't over-analyze a few particulars, though (like Community Coffee and new servers who know less about French food than most casual diners), Maison Bleu could be our ticket to Paris in spirit and in palate. Unpretentious dishes like snails in puff pastry shells, braised veal shank and salmon with hollandaise sauce, rolled to tables on linen-draped carts, actually warrant the menu written in French.

My favorite nod to the naughty French appetite was the calorific salade maison: romaine heart, bitter radicchio and leafy greens lightly varnished in Dijon vinaigrette and finished with lardon (crispy bacon), blue cheese and coarse black pepper. And forget the over-stuffed po-boy. Maison Bleu prefers monster croque monsieur sandwiches layered with ham, prosciutto and Gruyere cheese. It opts for milky split pea soup with basil, or smooth gazpacho with croutons, poured from silver vessels into bowls at the table. Honest rib steaks are cooked flawlessly to order, garnished with tarragon and coated with a serious, beefy glaze (capers, cited on the menu, didn't show up on my plate). Boeuf a la Bourguignonne and a big red wine were my greatest defense against early June rains. Beef chunks soft as dried dates lolled in a meaty red wine sauce with carrots, onions and (unfortunately undercooked) potatoes.

A tasty "pilaf" made from French lentils and quinoa (a nutty grain usually found in South American cooking) was the kitchen's most blatant detour from conventional French ground. The wholesome combo accompanied crunchy eggplant sheets curled around oozing chevre; it appeared again stuffed into baked acorn squash.

If the charming Francophilic efforts failed to defeat clammy dessert crepes and an uninspired tart a l'onion, Maison Bleu's prices speak a universally attractive language. When former hedge fund entrepreneur and proprietor Howard Ferguson finished a stint at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in 1999, he knew he wanted to show New Orleans that superior French food and wine are attainable without a platinum card. We're not talking Le Big Mac cheap, but you easily can squeeze a three-course dinner with wine and tip out of $30.

Boca Negra cake (a bittersweet chocolate cross between luscious frosting and a brownie) and a buttery pistachio tarte filling I'd like to spread on toast taste much better than they look on the dessert cart. But it's the wine selection that most forcefully pushes Maison Bleu above its "bistro-style" peers. Ferguson treats his favorite beverage as if he still lives in a society where drinking with lunch isn't masked with Altoids. The least-expensive glasses compose a collection of food-friendly house wines blended to Ferguson's taste by a negociant in Southern France. Without any snooty coercion to order more, servers frequently offer tastes of vintages from the loftier price brackets. I tried an impressive white Burgundy during brunch but opted instead for more Community Coffee, lest I forget where I was.

click to enlarge Fresh off his stint at Paris' famous Le Cordon Bleu, Chef-owner Howard Ferguson makes a visit to MAISON BLEU feel like an escape to the Champs-Elysees.
  • Fresh off his stint at Paris' famous Le Cordon Bleu, Chef-owner Howard Ferguson makes a visit to MAISON BLEU feel like an escape to the Champs-Elysees.
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