Two well-regarded veteran hotel chefs teamed up at La Cote when it opened in the Renaissance Arts Hotel: Richard "Bingo" Starr and Rene Bajeux, who also runs Rene Bistrot. Starr bowed out of the partnership in December, making room for Bajeux's longtime protege, Chuck Subra Jr., to step in as the executive chef responsible for day-to-day operations.
Though Subra's menu is still in flux, a recent visit turned up some rock-solid dishes established as signatures during the Bingo era. Shrimp impaled lengthwise on wooden skewers are battered and fried to a wraithlike tempura quality; you treat these sweetly bland shrimp sticks as flavor-seizing wands, swiping them through zesty remoulade sauce and using them to pierce pickled shreds of mirliton. A double-cut ham chop, all smokehouse and melting fat, becomes a Thanksgiving-like feast with mashed sweet potatoes and vinegary braised greens. A side order of thin, skin-on French fries is mandatory.
A few recent menu tweaks are, however, disheartening. I miss the seafood Cataplana terribly, a racy Portuguese stew that makes bouillabaisse seem as dull as school lunch (perhaps customers weren't willing to order it "pour deux"). A crabcake was mostly stuffing on my last visit, starchy overkill considering its accompanying warm potato salad. And a beautiful piece of grouper suffered under a too-salty crawfish Nantua, rendering it impossible to eat.
Service, on the other hand, seems to have smoothed out over the past two months. Waiters, under-waiters and busboys are freakishly informed and impossible to stump. If there were a red carpet, the genial host would do the rolling.
Great meals at La Cote still begin with oysters. The selection may include Canada's Beau Soleils with their delicate salt finish and/or British Columbia's Chef's Creek oysters whose centers are as creamy as softened butter. However exceptional the foreign varieties, Louisiana's meaty mollusks (always available) knock them silly this time of year.
Too bad, then, that sitting at the raw bar dampens the appetite. Its vista of the kitchen's inner workings offers a panorama of partially seared meats, manhandled plastic wrap and stray fries smooshed onto the floor. This kitchen isn't dirty, and considering contemporary pop culture's damaging over-glamorization of chefs, I'm all for a more realistic view of kitchen life. But not while we're eating.
The raw bar's awkward position is the only flaw in a room whose retro-modern design is as mesmerizing, as comfortable and as almost-silly as a lava lamp. It's the kind of interior that capitalizes on the more fascinating aspects of schizophrenia. Primary colors bleed into purples and golds. The bars' hard surfaces appear grainy-soft, like sand. Brick columns thick as sequoia tree trunks pierce the ceiling in a way that suggests you're at the bottom of the sea, while swirling clouds of color on the carpeting seem to reflect a psychedelic sky. It's classy fun.
This is a setting in which anything could happen on a plate. But while the kitchen might steal an opportunity to careen over the top -- during Bingo's reign, jewels of already decadent foie gras came with truffle cheese one day, caramel sauce the next -- most of the food was, and is, inventive only so far as reason allows. A whole, roasted striped bass, for example, was perfection when seasoned with just salt and pepper. This must be the influence of Bajeux, a French chef with a real talent for using classical techniques to turn high-caliber ingredients into food you could eat every day.
Some of the most rewarding dishes are the most understated, like the oyster and artichoke "cobbler," a made-from-scratch casserole with whole oysters and a substantial Parmesan "streusel" top. The lima bean cassoulet, which I ordered as a side dish, is creamy and larded with bacon and nothing like the icky frozen lima beans that tortured my youth. Warm, sugar-coated fritters filled with diced apple follow a trend that was too long in coming: doughnuts for dessert.
The chefs are lucky to have dessert designer Joy Jessup. Her style is aligned with elite European fashion houses: respectful of the old when creating the new. She fills cylinders of appropriately gelatinized chocolate Bavarian with oozy chicory-caramel sauce, and she riffs on the pina colada by placing an island of coconut sorbet into a sea of cold passion fruit soup dotted with nibblets of pineapple and mango. An industrially strong lemon pot de creme was the only dessert slip. Jessup's other flavors, like the room, exhibit more life.
A trip to the faraway restroom inevitably results in an exploration of the hotel's equally colorful, multi-tiered lobby. It's at once a gallery and a sculpture garden, moving in parts and simply stunning in others. A walk-though after dinner could entice you to stay the night, turning the former role of the hotel restaurant on its head.