Take one memorable lunch, which began with soft, yellow onion rolls bejeweled with poppy seeds, and a gratis ramekin of sweet duck liver pate sealed with a layer of cooled fat. A friend and I risked redundancy and ordered the chef's charcuterie, a marbleized platter strewn with rustic extravagances: gamey-rich pork rillettes; red chile-specked apricot preserves; a meaty, farmhouse-glamorous galantine of duck, rabbit and pork; intensely pickled vegetables; and two French cheeses, both at room temperature and spreadable.
This we followed with a crawfish bisque whose appearance was of dark, brushed suede and whose silky texture felt like drinking melted chocolate. Then, supple, egg-tinted fettuccine communing with scads of tightly curled crawfish tails in a slick of red-hot butter, and an open-face sandwich of farm-fresh egg salad with a side of ruby, spice-seared tuna.
Finally, for dessert, came a sort of postmodern -- and delicious -- interpretation of the regional after-dinner drink cafe brulot: a buttery hazelnut tart teamed up with bittersweet orange sauce and a ball of cinnamon ice cream rolled in hazelnuts and coffee bean chips.
For those who haven't guessed, Gerard Maras is back.
Most recently, Maras operated his own restaurant, Gerard's Downtown, an understated space in the Warehouse District. There, fresh pastas, house-cured salmon gravlax, and produce and eggs grown and gathered on his family's Northshore farm earned him a reputation as one of the city's least flashy but most meticulous and seasonal-minded chefs. Gerard's Downtown closed in July 2002, since which time Maras has been in cahoots with restaurant mogul and longtime friend Ralph Brennan. Maras and Brennan worked together for more than a decade at Mr. B's Bistro; their partnership at Ralph's on the Park, which occupies the overhauled Tavern on the Park building, is a merging of business and culinary talents that achieves its full potential during meals like the lunch described above.
Precisely because the prospects are so high, when Ralph's isn't at its best the annoyance can smart for days like an avoidable sunburn. Take one unfortunately memorable dinner, which began with the host announcing that our balcony table overlooking the park (confirmed the previous day) was unavailable due to "fear of thunderstorms," though none were forecasted and the sky was clear. A friend similarly denied a confirmed balcony table due to heat calls this the Balcony Bait-and-Switch. Avoid the last-minute switch by reserving a window seat instead.
This Sunday dinner continued a downward spiral. A waiter who doggedly tried to sell luxury items (foie gras, lobster, "special cocktails") couldn't answer questions about the day's soups. A spinach and chard crepe "gateau" ordered from the thoughtful vegetarian menu was served lukewarm and then re-heated to mush. We sent back a would-be elegant, medium-rare Prime filet mignon with port wine sauce because it arrived without its Valdeon blue cheese; a manager returned it re-plated and medium-well.
Sometimes it's a matter of course in New Orleans' finer restaurants for every diner to receive a lagniappe, "a little something extra," from the chef; other times the logic behind lagniappe distribution is more elusive. During the aforementioned Sunday dinner -- my fourth visit to Ralph's in two months -- numerous other parties devoured pristinely plated treats before their meals commenced. My date and I did not. I had enjoyed such a lagniappe on my third visit, and it was spectacular: scallop ceviche spooned with corn and tomato confetti into a pinky-length Belgian endive leaf. The lime-cilantro cream beneath it and an invisible trace of white truffle oil created gargantuan flavor in that little bite and a dull heartache for all future lagniappes denied.
Such are the extremes at Ralph's. A slideshow of highlights experienced in between these two varyingly memorable meals would picture gorgeous salads made with graceful pea shoots; crisp-roasted duck, its fattiness meted with bittersweet orange sauce and its wildness matched by pungent baby turnips; and carrot cake in which sweet carrot was a flavor, not just a moisturizer. Ralph's assorted clientele is primarily local, so far. I once lunched with the New Orleans Garden Society meeting to my right, a rainbow of medical scrubs to my left and a retiree drinking a bourbon milk punch dead ahead. It can take two years for new restaurants to smooth opening kinks into seamless operation. At Ralph's, the partners' greatest challenge will be merging Brennan's friendly but corporate business sense with Maras' refined-farmer cooking genius in a way that feels wholly organic all the time. In the meantime, you might consider tolerating a little heartache as down payment.