Occasionally, when expectations are low, this handicap turns in our favor and we're pleasantly surprised. Take the previously restaurant-starved intersection where Transcontinental Drive and West Esplanade Avenue collide in Metairie. Mainly populated by residences and functional businesses -- supermarkets, party-favor suppliers, violin repairs -- this neighborhood has been on a roll lately of surpassing dining expectations.
The culinary upsurge began last year when Laurentino's tapas and paellas began to materialize from an inconspicuous corner of an inconspicuous shopping nook. Then Ed McIntyre, best known for his Mr. Ed's restaurants, opened Austin's, an almost-fine-dining neighborhood restaurant. And now there's Restaurant Cypress, a warm place of brown butter-colored walls and inspired food that evolved last spring from an unassuming first-floor beauty salon.
The anonymous brick building may appear better suited to an insurance office, and the glare of street lamps penetrating into the dining room may be jarring. But the scene inside Cypress is romantic, almost bucolic, anyway. Wheat-colored wood furnishings, yellowish lighting and earth-toned pottery used for both decoration and service create a country inn ambience. Norah Jones is the favored soundtrack; the richness of her big-hearted melancholy reverberates in the chef's seafood gumbo, which is as dark as the kiln-fired bowl in which it's served, and the chocolate-Kahlua ice cream that's as dense as the cream skimmed from a farmer's milk pail.
Two small dining rooms seat about 50 people. It's a manageable size for a kitchen at the top of its game, which is more the case now than it was when I first ate there two months ago. Whether purveyors or just preparations have changed, even the quality of some ingredients seems to have improved. The sauteed Sesame Shrimp in habanero sauce now tastes fresh. The scallops en brochette are broad and just cooked-through, rather than shriveled in their bacon wraps. A lobster and potato hash side dish, undercooked and choppy then, is a confetti of supple ingredients now.
Prior to opening Cypress, Stephen Huth was chef de cuisine at Vincent's Italian Cuisine. You wouldn't guess it from this menu; its only real Italian offering is a chaotic chicken and linguine entree whose pummeling of rosemary could qualify as abuse. Instead, pasta lovers should try the appetizer of housemade lobster-stuffed ravioli whose "dill cream" is a mellow, buttery emulsion.
For the most part, Huth cooks like a modern American chef living in New Orleans. The all-around best entree also exhibits the most local character: three meltingly tender slices of veal, paneed and then layered with a crabmeat stuffing whose invisible addition of portobello mushrooms imparts a moist earthiness. The sherry beurre blanc on this plate tastes like a thick and sweet brown butter; it bears striking resemblance to the "bouillabaisse reduction" and the "lemon beurre blanc" on other plates. Happily, no entree suffers from the similarity.
If the Chef's Fish Selection is pompano, your decision is made. Cypress' kitchen pan-fries each fillet with the respect others give a $100 bill. Rabbit Rillettes are as unique as pan-fried pompano is classic: naturally sweet rabbit confit is wrapped with thyme in a long, layered triangle of phyllo dough; served with mildly "dirty" dirty rice and a Steen's molasses glaze.
It's odd that the same kitchen would produce such dry, flavorless duck confit to compose a salad along with blue cheese, dried figs and pecan vinaigrette. A waiter encouraged us to cash in on the free house salad (which precedes each entree) made with bacon chips and garlic-buttermilk dressing instead -- wise advice.
The salmon tournedos -- salmon rolled around dill-seasoned crabmeat and asparagus -- also flopped, so dried-out that the rolls split apart like plastic Easter eggs. When all else fails, there's always lots of cake for dessert, like housemade Bundt cake soaked in Bailey's Irish Cream and cheesecake paved with praline-sweet pecans.
Service is gracious and decisive, even when you arrive on a Friday night moments before closing time, without reservations, wearing denim. One waiter, a spitting image of the rounded butler on the first Joe Millionaire, moves faster than water without breaking a sweat. His colleague, a bartender who makes killer Irish coffees with Bailey's Irish Cream, can be seen replacing burned-out table candles before their smoke has cleared. The roughly 40-bottle wine list is no feat of originality, but the educated staff's recommendations can -- and do -- make a meal.
Neither Cypress' country-quaint ambience, nor its occasionally awkward dishes, nor its practical prices would assimilate easily into a more centralized urban location. Just right where it is, Cypress is not a member of New Orleans' hot, new restaurant elite. Don't expect it to be, and you won't be disappointed.