The Hotel Monteleone is one of the city's last grand hotels that hasn't been acquired by a corporate subsidiary. At Criollo (214 Royal St., 504-681-4444; www.criollonola.com), the hotel's two-year-old restaurant, the staff is jovial; a sous chef thinks nothing of handing me a spoon of creme brulee doused in flaming caramel liquor.
Creme brulee flambe typifies the creative freedom enjoyed by hotel executive chef Randy Buck, executive sous chef Jose Munguia and chef de cuisine Joe Maynard. Their experiments receive prominent menu placement: diners can sample house-cured gravlax with tarragon and hibiscus salt and beef cheeks with charred sea scallops.
"Louisiana is notorious for blending traditions," Munguia says. "We grabbed paella and turned it into jambalaya. [Caribbean cuisine] became our gumbo."
Criollo (a play on "Creole") is modern but unpretentious, while nodding to the great traditions of the hotel and New Orleans' food culture. Elegant stemware, white tablecloths and a three-station open kitchen could be borrowed from a stylish Manhattan restaurant. Comfortable leather-bound chairs, books linked to the hotel's literary past, and windows overlooking Iberville Street's miniature pine trees speak the language of New Orleans.
Criollo attracts a large local clientele. Almost everything, from an array of compound butters to the bread, is house-made. Buck selects custom olive oils from California farms. In view of the hotel's iconic rooftop sign, Munguia grows herbs. The citrusy bite of lemongrass and the velvety sweetness of chocolate mint appear in a menu that changes seasonally, or whenever the mood strikes, according to Buck.
"People see when you're taking that approach to detail," he says. "We have fun. [It's not like] a lot of kitchens. We want the cooks to express themselves."
The kitchen staff's international background often influences the menu. Buck says many of his cooks joined the team after Hurricane Katrina, barely knowing how to chop an onion. Now they rival the staff of the best kitchens in town, he says. The proteges and prodigies hail from places like Morocco and South Africa, and include pastry chef Minh Duong, whose spun-sugar roses and Yule logs boggle the eye with their realism.
Criollo's reveillon menu features five courses for $68. Guests can wait for a table in the adjacent lounge, which often features live music, or in the famous Carousel Bar. Buck, Maynard and Munguia see the restaurant as a future landmark on par with the hotel.