There's an air of stately permanence at Ralph's on the Park, one that restaurants many times its age often don't achieve. It may come from the bones of the 1860s-era building Ralph Brennan extensively renovated to open his most ambitious restaurant in late 2003, and it's surely abetted by the timeless grace of neighboring City Park.
But the food at Ralph's on the Park has changed a great deal in the restaurant's relatively short life. The most dramatic turn yet began when sous chef Chip Flanagan took on a long-running audition for the kitchen's top spot last year. He was officially named executive chef this summer, and his new menu is now in bloom. Its playful approach sometimes goes overboard, but overall it provides an interesting romp full of international winks and nods.
Ralph's preserves a few of the old bestsellers. Baked oysters over spinach with a green spark of jalapeno in the cream sauce are as pleasing as ever. The turtle soup remains as classic as the martinis glittering on so many tables during the Friday-only lunch here. But departures from the contemporary Creole script are now the rule, as evidenced by how many of the dishes require tableside promotion by the staff.
That's certainly helpful with the unusual but fantastic black drum rillette, a cool, mildly smoky pate of pulverized fish, lemon and garlic that you spoon from a glass cylinder onto a toasted baguette with a thick slice of strong dill pickle.
The item most heavily promoted is called the Cajun Scotch egg, based on a culinary stunt of a bar snack involving a boiled egg, an encasing layer of sausage and a deep fryer. In this version, boudin filling is the wrapping, and if you can imagine a boudin ball stuffed with a whole egg, you have the picture. I prefer what Flanagan dubs Vietnamese-style calamari, served in a three-compartment dish with exceptionally spicy fish sauce in one vessel, a salad of udon noodles and fresh herbs in another and dime-sized slices of tender squid body stuffed with pork in the third. Chopsticks are provided, though a fork proves much more useful.
Crushed cereal is the breading both for chicken wings — with more Asian flavor courtesy of a sesame soy sauce — and head-on shrimp, which were fine on their own but clashed with a slippery, tangy goat cheese flan on the side.
The red snapper is my favorite entree. It's straightforward but hardly plain, with a roasted-on crust of aioli and an acidic strain of tomatoes, vermouth and fennel underneath. Middle Eastern touches brighten the braised lamb cheeks entree, from their lemony couscous bed to the chickpeas scattered over the top. The hanger steak gets an interesting Korean twist with a spicy garlic and ginger sauce and a crisp cucumber salad alongside the expected french fries.
My favorite dessert is pastry chef Tobias Dotson's rendition of three well-known candies: one fashioned like a dessert terrine slice from an enormous Snickers bar, a peanut butter cup that surpasses its Reese's inspiration and a rocky road-style mousse. It's a visual stunner to end a meal, and in step with chef Flanagan's playful lead.