In the foyer's absence, dinner guests enter the restaurant through the Polo Club Lounge, a distinguished bar of library lighting, low-key jazz piano, plush sofas and, often, the smolder of expensive cigars. Considering that this is the most exclusive restaurant in town, some spectators find this new design uncouth. Adding to the misgivings are the restaurant's confusing, half-new name; the new mural depicting the spoils of 19th century plantation life; and the smoke that wafts into the dining room.
The ado was expected: New Orleanians resist change as a rule. What's more surprising is the relative quiet regarding the excellent Chef Jonathan Wright, who arrived in November 2002 fresh from playing an active role in Britain's invigorated culinary scene. Wright cooked at the Michelin two-star Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons, and he ran his own restaurant, La Gousse d'Ail, immediately before coming to New Orleans.
All this français isn't posturing. At the heart of Wright's cooking -- in the hearty yet nimble terrine pocked with tender morsels of pheasant, duck, venison and sweetbreads, and in the nearly liquid porcini custard presented in an egg shell with a lather of truffle cream -- is a progressive investigation of French haute cuisine that often draws upon more rustic, French countryside ideals.
A world-class hotel wants to impress its guests without making them think too much, a task that suits this chef. While he employs the requisite luxury ingredients, occasionally with the requisite immoderation (soggy black truffle shavings bogged down several courses of the tasting menu), most dishes center upon deeply, naturally flavored products.
Novelty bade me order the shin of lamb, and though the funky-grassy braised meat was superb, it was the vibrantly flavored oven-wrinkled tomatoes, lemony fennel and pungent baby turnips that held me rapt. Purplish slices of venison loin tasted rangy and sweet, like an animal fed on pine needles and juniper; caramelized cauliflower, supple red cabbage and fat blackberries played out the entree's earthy-sweet theme with easy precision. You may decide to contemplate the cucumber finish on a raw Kumamoto oyster as it slides around your tongue with shavings of cucumber and radish, but probably you'll just swallow it and purr.
If Wright has a signature move it's warm, frothy sauces -- foaming emulsions and light veloutes that waiters pour tableside to complete many dishes. Parched, humorless frog legs are no reason not to lap up the airy, celery-clean Jerusalem artichoke veloute that envelopes them; with wilted greenery, morel mushrooms and rectangular gnocchi rafts, this eerily beautiful dish resembles a fogged-over swamp. On another plate, a white emulsion flecked with vanilla seeds crept into the moist flesh of two striped bass fillets so thoroughly that the savory vanilla perfume was not in the bass or on the bass but rather of the bass.
Down to cut-crystal candleholders and Eschenbach china, the dining room glimmers with an Old World European elegance. Chairs are upholstered in spine-cradling leather, curved banquettes are softer than suede, and exquisite lighting creates the illusion of simultaneous dawn and dusk. Accordingly, the chef rolls out some classics. Encased in puff pastry, his version of coquilles St. Jacques intoxicates a lone scallop with the lean muscle of truffled leeks. A medium-bodied, dark-roux seafood gumbo is also faultless.
Neither a molten chocolate dessert nor a coffee and chicory souffle matched the exalted reputation of Pastry Chef Keegan Gerhard. Which is why his breathy lavender marshmallow caught me unawares; a nibble of salted caramel teased me further out of insouciance. Finally, Gerhard's satiny bittersweet chocolate tart, paired with creamy peanut ice cream and candied orange peel, produced a lifelong fan.
I cannot say the same of the dining room staff, most members of which appear either terrified or annoyed. Neither emotion gives way to heartfelt hospitality. Questions regarding the superb, room-temperature cheese selection, as well as those about intriguing and expensive wines offered by the glass, were met with perfunctory facts but no gusto. The enthusiasm level did seem to surge when I splurged on the fantastic wine pairings chosen to match the chef's tasting menu.
Staff hierarchy is expressed in dress code and in knowledge -- the underlings, who wear uniforms, aren't equipped with much information about the food they carry. The more seasoned staff isn't necessarily more professional. One evening when a young woman mistakenly brought another table's coffee service to my date and me, we witnessed her get chastised, twice, by two of her superiors, within three minutes. The staff is infinitely more relaxed during lunch in the bright and leafy, window-lined Terrace room; one afternoon my waiter even dared to instigate a joke.
I like Wright's cooking very much. It's too bad getting at it can be such an ado. Passing through the bar is barely the beginning.