Of all the upscale restaurants to open recently, Lee Circle is where you'll find the most dapper, old-school diners downing two martinis before dinner. (They're also straining to hear one another; the restaurant's hard surfaces cause a racket.) It's where groups of stylish baby boomers clogged the aisles before this fall's Neil Diamond and Paul McCartney concerts. While tourists roll their luggage within yards of the dining room, the entryway was clearly laid for locals. Located on the ground floor of Hotel Le Cirque on the downtown curve of Lee Circle, the restaurant brings you right back around to the kind of fine eating that likely fixed your tastes to New Orleans in the beginning.
Old-line ingredients and preparations get a new coat of polish from collaborating partner Dennis Hutley, who also owns Le Parvenu in Kenner, and Executive Chef Scott Snodgrass. The mirliton bisque with crabmeat and claws might be single-handedly responsible for a mirliton awakening -- two servers reported that it's the most clamored-for dish on the menu. Amen; its soft cream base whispers something like nutmeg; the dew-like fruitiness of sliced mirliton allays the richness of cream and crab.
The chefs recycle timeless formulas, brush them off and leave behind only the faintest trace of ego. The Creole mixed grill is bouillabaisse you can eat with a fork. Servers pour earthy saffron-tomato sauce over grilled scallops, shrimp, crabmeat and a well-spiced drum fish fillet -- just enough sauce to get you thinking about soup. There's a piece of goat cheese toast thrown in, but no one forces you to eat that bouillabesque innovation. I'm unsure what the traditional match is for three melting veal cheeks, but their accompanying fresh egg noodles embedded with basil and lightly slicked with white truffle oil taste like history in the making. Caesar salad is purely classic, all lemon and anchovy with crannies of garlic and Parmesan.
Housemade Worcestershire sauce runs moody and deep, with shades of citrus peel, dried fruit, brine and dark spices. It makes a fine meuniere sauce for grilled redfish and crabmeat; mixed with vinegar and brandy, it drives a prosciutto-wrapped shrimp and white cheddar grits appetizer into lands both brackish and exquisite. Worcestershire also bolsters the pulled pork "rillette" casserole served as a lagniappe, which I ate by the forkful by my final visit (you're meant to spread it on toasts).
I'm sold on the food at Lee Circle, obviously, though if push came to shove I would drop-kick the drab roast chicken right off the menu, along with its palmful of almond rice and two tablespoons of white sauce (honey replaced this sauce on a more recent menu). And, as usual around here, the more immoderate the dish the better. Cured salmon spiced with star anise and wrapped around raw enoki mushrooms is a lovely break from excess, but I imagine it's much lovelier when your date's cheese grits aren't occupying your every thought.
If much of the menu depends upon recipes and concepts popularized at Clancy's and Le Parvenu, the dust settled differently in Lee Circle's cool dining room. The look is glam 1970s: a frosty backlit bar, hubcap-like chrome domes beading one wall, trippy amber-colored lamps cinched like glass haystacks. Windows along the front often sweat and drip, creating red break-light smudges from traffic on the roundabout aptly reminiscent of the driving scenes in Taxi Driver. The mod whiteness of the room's sunken level is from an era when people still smoked on airplanes; it can feel like one of those key-chain parties with all the chumming and air-kissing, and I get this tingle as if I've snuck downstairs to spy on the naughty adults.
Participating adults benefit from generous pours, from tall Sazeracs to a Simi Cabernet Sauvignon off the mostly domestic, red-heavy wine list. The service hierarchy is dressed in tuxedos, suits, and, in the case of the one hard-hustling busboy, all-black. Still, it was in the treatment of wine service that the all-male staff irrefutably proved its deference to old-fashioned pleasure rather than contemporary trends. After a particularly deep martini, I passed on wine with my entree. "Ah, there's enough booze in our food to keep you going," agreed my waiter. When I requested a wine pairing on another occasion, a different man responded, "I'm a firm believer in everybody drinking what they like."
That's just the kind of sentiment we tend to favor around here.