I once dined solo in Muriel's downstairs Bistro. While this bucked the dinner-party theme in the Candlelight Soiree upstairs, I was hardly the pariah. Come September, the public may reserve space in the Soiree exclusively for the chef's tasting menu, taking coffee afterwards in the sofa-lined Seance Lounge. Private parties had commissioned this second floor during my stag evening. Happily eating baked oysters in sundresses and golf shirts, my fellow Bistro diners and I watched hosts usher in the glitzier guests beneath an umbrella I had left at the restaurant's entrance. Our devoted waitstaff seemed unfazed by commotion in other parts of the building. And later on, the maitre'd rewarded my parasol's services with a honey-touched Beaulieu de Muscat to match a homemade terrine of fruit-forward cantaloupe, blackberry, strawberry and apricot sorbets.
He might have had the most polished charm, but the maitre'd wasn't the only man of chivalry in the room. It was my busboy's third night on the job; we had fun devising an employee training program that involved my asking easy questions and his scavenging the restaurant for answers. He was spot-on, however, when he boasted the squishy sun-dried tomato, herb and potato breads that rotate on other evenings with variations on the baguette. Another charmer, my server granted permission to dissect bulky pieces of "crabmeat remoulade and smoked salmon box sushi" with my fingers. Sesame-flecked soy sauce harmonized with the sticky rice, crunchy asparagus and crabmeat that lacked any hint of remoulade. But smoked salmon sheets draped over the sushi pieces were better removed and rolled around a seaweed salad garnish like shiny, pink housecoats.
It rained torrents outside, but Chef Roussel's summery triple tail entree complemented the usually sultry season. The fish's devilish name belies an angelic, white Gulf specimen that Roussel sealed in a golden, herb-rich crust. A fragrant cumin and cucumber vinaigrette refreshed an arugula side salad like unexpected blasts of night jasmine on a midnight stroll.
A Toulouse Lautrec collage decorating a crimson wall in one of the Bistro's dining rooms conveyed the tastes of a cultured 19th century homemaker. In contrast, appetizers like confit of duck leg glazed in chunky pear gastrique, and cubes of Pecorino-herb bread softening in a vinegary tomato and apple-sweet Vidalia onion salad, illustrated how Muriel's cuisine keeps pace with the culinary scene of 21st century New Orleans. More shreds of duck confit appeared in a sauce of French mustard, apple and pearl onions, composing a seared foie gras preparation that would revive the most jaded gourmand. Supple tournedos of beef with Roquefort cream were ideal as an 8-year-old's first lesson in steak knife skills. Finally, cinnamon-layered bread pudding surrounded by crystallizing vanilla sauce was a dream for night owls like me who sleep through breakfast's uber-sweet sticky buns.
Despite the sweet talk, Muriel's cuisine, like her service staff, teetered between excellence and a roughness in execution I was tempted to attribute to the hijinks of a friendly ghost. I expected a Calvados gastrique to thread elegance through an otherwise simplistic entree of grilled pork loin and crabmeat sauteed with shiitake mushrooms. Instead, it seemed a snitch had replaced the pink sauce's Calvados with grape juice. A serious shrimp stock and subtle spice kept an almost burnt shrimp etouffee afloat. But a shipwrecked "tarlett" of heavy crust and caramelized onions sunk into the muddy liquid and rice. And, as my third-grade companion pointed out, someone forgot to remove "the plumbing" from barely seasoned shrimp en brochette. (Thankfully, someone remembered to stir ample herbed cream cheese into this appetizer's enslaving grits.)
Muriel's first home is a supper club in Palm Springs, and her parent company, Leirum LLC, is opening a Muriel's Theater in San Francisco this fall. Like the Chart House, which inhabited the space prior to its $2 million renovation, Muriel's is a sort-of chain restaurant. But for the most part, Muriel's eccentricities reflect the restaurant's French Quarter surroundings, and the kitchen's feats are seasoned too heavily with New Orleanian hands to belong elsewhere.
As for Muriel's few shortcomings in service and taste, a friendly exorcism should do the trick.