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Le Foret makes an ambitious debut in the CBD 

click to enlarge General manager Danny Millan and chef James Corwell preside over the elegant offerings at Le Foret. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • General manager Danny Millan and chef James Corwell preside over the elegant offerings at Le Foret.

Quiet reserve isn't a virtue that usually constrains new restaurateurs, especially those who may have reason to believe they're bringing something different and extraordinary to the dining scene. Yet that is what has marked the young, promising life of Le Foret.

  This grandly ambitious restaurant opened four months ago without fanfare. Owners Michael and Margaret Schexnayder undertook a daunting renovation of a long-neglected Central Business District building for their restaurant, which they named for Margaret's grandmother. But the address has been off the radar for so many years that even now, with its lights finally glowing again, it's easy to pass it without noticing. Even the restaurant's Web site seems like a rudimentary placeholder.

  But once you're seated beneath the chandeliers in the elegant, if spare, dining room, and you're in the hands of chef James Corwell, the restaurant's identity becomes clear. Le Foret takes a formal approach to dining, signaled immediately by the first in a succession of elaborate amuses-bouche that continues between each course and beyond dessert. The restaurant exults in technically precise presentations, such as razor-thin slices of duck carpaccio piped with a round core of foie gras and arranged as petals under beets and shaved apple. It's also a place where, despite the inherent showiness of the food, the chef keeps steady aim on the diner's palate and belly.

  Earthy braised greens, aromatic curried onions, salty Marcona almonds and creamy bursts of tiny squash tortellini turned grilled rainbow trout into a winter warmer. Madeira and brandy swirled around sweet, dense lobster tail baked under piecrust. The filet, sourced from the tiny, family-run producer Verdun Meat Market in Raceland, was more flavorful than purely tender, a tradeoff I'll take any day, and toffee-thick oxtail gravy did not hurt one bit.

  An Atlanta native, Corwell is a certified master chef, a professional designation he earned after an arduous though seldom-pursued round of kitchen testing from the Culinary Institute of America. He was later chef at the Institute's Napa Valley teaching restaurant, called the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant. Le Foret marks his New Orleans debut, and his ever-changing menus draw from what appears to be an immense repertoire.

  Though the cuisine is predominantly Continental, a few Creole dishes make cameos, like the turtle soup or the exceptional oysters Rockefeller. One menu included three variations of ravioli, and each was chewy. The issue was addressed by the time of a subsequent visit, however, when the tender shells encased crabmeat and were zestily complemented by horseradish vinaigrette. Some dinner items repeat on the lunch menu alongside a few sandwiches and bistro dishes, including a cassoulet made up of more sausage, duck and lamb than beans.

  Service has been far less confident than the cuisine, not an uncommon shortcoming at new restaurants with hard-charging chefs. Waiters tend to mumble their menu descriptions, and we didn't get much help parsing the dense wine list. Soups and brothy dishes poured tableside had more suspense of accident than steady surety.

  Don't let the gratis bite-size cookies at the meal's end replace something from pastry chef Michael Luna's richly varied dessert menu. It was especially fun to pull apart layers of crisp chocolate, creme fraiche ice cream and candied orange bolstering an intricately composed raspberry pudding.

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