Just off Magazine Street, at the new French restaurant called The Flaming Torch, I caught a glimpse of how the upper crust lives. In the afternoons, the women eating lunch never look at their watches and rush back to the office. In the evenings, men wear suits and women wear pearls. Tables discuss their "journaling" or wonder if a Louis Vuitton bag from Saks was too cher. I was always the youngest person in the room who wasn't either employed by the restaurant or accompanied by a parent.
Chef Peter Chan, who worked at the exclusive Sandals resort in St. Lucia before relocating to New Orleans, cooks contemporary French fare with a light touch -- every ingredient is pristine and there are no heavy sauces. The wait staff attends to the guests without fuss or ceremony. The room, with warm orange walls, rustic tile and a large window looking out on Octavia Street, has an understated European elegance. It's easy to see why the restaurant attracts a crowd who can afford the finer things. With dinner entrees at The Flaming Torch rarely more expensive than $20, for a few hours even people of more modest means can live like the other half without doubling their credit card debt.
The kitchen scrutinizes each ingredient before it touches a plate. On a salad nicoise, perfect lettuce leaves and green beans were lightly dressed and carefully arranged to create a spiky pattern around the edges of the plate. A thick ahi tuna steak, seared rare, rested in the middle of the greens above a handful of olives. Other salads, even a pile of greens beside an appetizer or entree, showed the same level of care.
Chef Chan's appetizers, served in portions that won't ruin an appetite for the rest of the meal, were also meticulously constructed. A half-moon pastry shell was stuffed with Helix escargot sauteed in garlic, butter and mushrooms. Another appetizer of salmon roulades -- smoked salmon twisted around a dollop of Brie -- rested on crisp toast with a refreshing dill relish of diced cucumbers on top. A generous helping of rabbit and duck liver rillettes, a spread of rabbit meat with the texture of pulled pork bound together by seasoned fat, arrived with toast charred from the grill and tart cornichons.
The main courses, many of which appear on both the lunch and dinner menus, show Chef Chan's allegiance to contemporary French technique, which eschews rich sauces in favor of bright, unadulterated flavors. The roasted rack of lamb was rubbed with Dijon mustard and pebbles of crushed pecans, which added a crunchy edge to the perfectly cooked meat. A side of mashed potatoes actually tasted like a root vegetable rather than starchy butter. The salmon papillote -- a moist salmon fillet rubbed with herbs and baked in parchment paper -- came with wild rice and haricot vert lightly steamed to preserve their crispness. The menu also includes classic French dishes like coq au vin and an excellent cassoulet, that rich and rustic Provencal stew of white beans that requires hours of cooking. The duck fat on the cassoulet formed a luscious seal across the top of the beans while a thick layer of golden breadcrumbs covered the duck leg that rose above the stew. A bracing accent of white wine balanced the richness of the cassoulet.
The desserts were also carefully considered. Flavored cheesecakes can often taste like a Frankenstein creation, with two flavors awkwardly grafted together. At The Flaming Torch, brandy and spices nicely complemented a long wedge of creamy cheesecake. The bread pudding, covered with a whiskey anglaise sauce and studded with white raisins and whole pecans, broke into a rubble of pieces that lightened the texture of what can often be the densest dessert on the menu. The best of the bunch, a carefully selected cheese plate of Gruyere, blue cheese, Brie and soft goat cheese, appeared on the appetizer menu. The selection might be obvious, but each cheese was complex, subtle and an outstanding representative of its type.
The attention to detail and concern with subtleties extended to every aspect of the service. Each time I visited, the wait staff was efficient and friendly, formal but not fussy. They immediately noticed one evening that my wife was shivering under a vent and offered to turn off the air conditioning before we said a word. All the servers were enthusiastic about the food and wine, and readily recommended entrees or glasses of wine that they personally enjoyed.
The Flaming Torch impresses without overwhelming. That may be the curse of a chef who is more careful than bold. I enjoyed almost everything I ate there, but no dish was so overwhelmingly good that I dreamed about returning to sample it again. Each meal, though, was one of those occasions when all the pieces fall into place. When dining in France, where attention to detail is taken for granted, I often experienced the same relaxed contentment that I felt at The Flaming Torch. Many chefs make French food in this country, but few restaurants can create the utterly satisfying experience found in nearly every neighborhood in Paris. The Flaming Torch has the feel of something luxurious at a reasonable price. It's like finding a genuine Louis Vuitton bag for the price of a knock-off.