One of the accurate stereotypes about New Orleans diners is that we're no sooner done with one meal before we begin discussing the next. This scenario played out around our table at Meson 923, though at this promising new restaurant the talk was about planning our next meal under the same roof.
Meson 923 is the type of place people plan to visit well in advance. Elegant and expensive, it's a luxury restaurant for special occasions. But the food here is so exciting, and at times so dazzlingly good, that I can imagine any old pretense being stretched to justify dinner.
Certainly, I'll be thinking up reasons to reprise a meal including lavishly garnished crudo — the Italian answer to sashimi — stiffly crusted scallops, an excellent dish of rare tuna paired with grilled knuckles of sweetbreads and a cheese plate for dessert. It's one of the best restaurant meals I have had in recent memory.
Managing partner Astrid LaVenia and Jerry Fertel, son of the late Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth's Chris Steak House, opened Meson 923 in March, and it still has some important issues to address. I ordered the cheese plate mentioned above because previous desserts were disappointing, including a panna cotta washed out by syrupy fruit and gummy, braised dates in dry pastry. Service also falls short. Servers seemed earnest but awkwardly stiff, and too often they confused who ordered which dish.
What has set this restaurant apart is the imaginative and precise work of executive chef Christopher Lynch. Originally from Philadelphia, he built his career at high-profile restaurants in New York and New Orleans before taking over as executive chef at Emeril's Restaurant after Hurricane Katrina.
Meson is Spanish for inn, but Lynch's wide-ranging menu is more in tune with the progressive spirit of contemporary Spanish cuisine than traditional dishes. The fundamental flavors are assertive, but they're transformed by nuanced touches and unexpected combinations. For an appetizer of calamari, Lynch coats a whole squid with plantains, stuffs it with sausage and pine nuts and fries it, so the result is like kibbeh with a marine tinge. A tuna tartare special was cooled with the arresting addition of a scoop of tomato-flavored sorbet. For duck confit pappardelle, soft, thin noodles were glazed with luscious, brandy-spiked cream and cut through by ribbons of warm peaches and pistachio bits.
Perfectly cooked halibut had a dark dusting of chorizo ground into ultra-fine particles and applied like spice. Chanterelles clung to the seared surface of meaty, mild fish (the increasingly common tripletail), plated with Vietnamese-style rice noodles bright with citrus and mint.
Seafood is clearly Lynch's focus, but the steak here is special, too. His kitchen is equipped for sous-vide cooking, a preparation using vacuum packs and very low heat. A filet mignon treated this way was extraordinarily tender, as expected, but also intensely flavored. Lynch uses the same method on some of his vegetables, pushing their erstwhile commonplace flavors to the center of more dishes. His menu changes frequently, but it's already clear Meson 923 is serious about new cuisine.