When the Ritz-Carlton hotel moved into the old Maison Blanche building in 2000, its premier restaurant, Victor's, was Š well, ritzy. The restaurant's rococo furnishings befitted the time-honored hotel chain, jackets were required, and the worldly food nodded to all points of the culinary globe, excepting the Creoles of New Orleans. For all its frou, Chef Frank Brunacci's visionary cooking ‹ olive oil ice cream with shrimp and oranges; pudding-tender beef cheek with red pepper mousse ‹ was thought-provoking and, during the frequent promotions, priced well below its worth in raw materials, labor and creative energy.
But it didn't sell.
On the edge of the restaurant-rich French Quarter, the AAA Five-Diamond venue apparently outclassed hotel guests' needs and outpriced locals' budgets. So last fall, following an annual August break, the restaurant reopened with a new identity: Victor's Grill, New Orleans chophouse. The replacement chef, Matthew Murphy, had been, and still is, chef for the hotel's French Quarter Bar (FQB), an informal restaurant with a local spin. In a press release circulated at the time explaining the changes at Victor's, Murphy commented, "It is all about what the guest wants, not what we think they want."
On my first visit to Victor's Grill in December, this novel philosophy appeared victorious. Victor's original sprawling chandeliers, chairs you could sleep in, moody forest landscapes painted onto walls and central verriere (gigantic skylight) still invoked Versailles-like awe. But the clientele had changed: Namely, there was a clientele. The dining room, including its private cheater's booths, was up to half-capacity, an infrequent phenomenon during the lonely Brunacci era. While some diners still dressed for the Ritz, others ‹ like the couple in matching sweaters and blue jeans drinking tall pink cocktails ‹ didn't.
The new menu, and its execution, was similarly mismatched. Steakhouse-style entrees were classic and unswerving. A double-cut pork chop cooked medium was juicy as a summer peach; even with the 1980s well behind us, moderately blackened grouper with lemon-caper sauce possessed the timeless sophistication of an Armani gown. Appetizers, however, were dumbed down to tourist-menu levels. A tiny bottle of Tabasco served alongside oyster chowder pleasantly laced with anise liqueur must have been a souvenir; when applied, it curdled the chowder's delicate flavor. A plain red jambalaya topped with leathery fried shrimp just seemed desperate. A leather-bound wine list sat on the table, but formulaic crowd-pleasers like these demand a Hurricane.
By the end of February, the restaurant had recovered some self-respect. As an amuse bouche (nonexistent on my first visit), the chef fashioned a pastel-colored fruit cocktail from kumquat, pear and a spiced, Christmas-like warmth. Tabasco never crossed the table, and jambalaya gave way to more distinguished and better developed local flavors on appetizer plates, such as Louisiana caviar and tasso cream. In one appetizer, avocado and lump crabmeat pressed into a cylinder were too similar ‹ soft and strangely bland. In another, sweet potato ravioli filling had a pasty texture. Even so, the attempts to think beyond Bourbon Street were appreciated.
And again, main courses delivered. Moist and meaty grill-marked redfish needed absolutely nothing, though a velveteen citrus beurre blanc elevated its verve like powdered sugar on beignets. Chateaubriand sliced tableside was, as anticipated, a quivering mass of rosy beef that became one with the waiter's carving knife. A side order of brandy green peppercorn sauce was as complex as the chateaubriand was straightforward, at first beefy and rich and then expanding like a deep breath with fresh green peppercorn flavor. Nicely cooked Maine lobster, a chophouse must, was squeaky and chewable, and well-matched with its graceful Chardonnay-tarragon sauce.
Whereas a three-course minimum directed ordering at the original Victor's, most meats and fish at Victor's Grill are served simply with a baked tomato and a gorgeous tuft of dressed arugula. The predictable a la carte side dishes ‹ potatoes gratin, garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach, roasted mushrooms ‹ were basic enough to have been lifted from The Joy of Cooking.
Since the changeover, dessert has progressed from apple-pie traditional to a more ambitious menu including baba au rhum soaked in tropical fruit syrup and frozen pistachio nougat with sweet-sour balsamic cherries. While the former was a bit dry and the nougat was mostly air, a white chocolate panna cotta hit the mark: closer in flavor and texture to a Bavarian cream, it provided a creamy-tart canvas for bittersweet grapefruit compote and clemetine sorbet.
Wine is its own course. Of the 19-page list, the final four currently include must-sell, "end of bin" bottles originally chosen to match Brunacci's food. Three friends and I agreed that scoring two interesting vintages for $40 total, and dining to songstress Karin Williams performing in the adjacent Lobby Lounge (separated from Victor's by windows), secured the February meal a solid seven on a scale of zero to ten.
Seven is not exactly a ritzy rating but, besides the fussy furnishings and the exclusive wine book, there's not much ritz left to dining at Victor's. The prices match those at most other downtown steakhouses, the service is competent and relaxed, and the food is, overall, comfortable ‹ what you'd expect from a top-end chophouse. Perhaps most telling, though, are the filled seats.