A succession of restaurants in the lobby level of Metairie's Heritage Plaza have served different food over the years, but in a way each served the same role.
This is the upscale, in-house lunch spot for people who work in the 18-story office tower, a default option when a $20 or $30 meal is in order. More significantly, this restaurant space at the foot of Veterans Memorial Boulevard has long been a "power lunch" destination, especially when that lunch brings parties from the city and suburbs together at the same table.
All of that is still in evidence at Heritage Grill, which the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group opened just before Mardi Gras. As with its predecessors, the decor and the lunch crowd make the restaurant feel equal parts country club and boardroom.
The food at Heritage Grill, however, shows that while a business lunch hub may not offer a culinary walk on the wild side, it needn't be predictable or boring. The menu, created by executive chef Haley Bitterman and now overseen by chef Steven Marsella, lays out familiar Creole comfort food classics, but gives them enough flair to stand out in a crowd.
The hanger steak is such a mainstay of upscale lunch menus it could be renamed the businessman's cut. Here it is accompanied by the creamy pungency of blue cheese worked into a lush compound butter. Sandwiches are solid, especially the vividly fresh tuna steak special I tried one day. Salads figure big on the menu too, befitting the format, and the best one is out of the ordinary: Barbecue oysters, a spicy, tangy treatment of fried oysters akin to Buffalo wings (and a mainstay at Brennan's Red Fish Grill), crown a crisp huddle of spinach and frisee. Even at this time of year, the oysters burst with flavor.
There are some weak spots. The potentially exciting watermelon and arugula salad was derailed by shriveled crab claws, and other dishes that could stand a few tweaks include the hearty but bland chicken and dumplings.
Perhaps the best entree is the most straightforward: a plank of blackened redfish, simple and beautiful, spicy but tender and delicate under that sheen of dark seasoning. Duck, mushroom and tasso egg rolls are winners, as are the creamy, garlicky oyster gratin, the towering, head-turning crawfish bruschetta and the bread pudding in a moat of Bitterman's well-traveled and heady whiskey sauce Anglaise. You should split this rich dessert if you intend to get any work done after lunch, though that doesn't seem to be much of a concern for some of the crowd here. They keep the bartender busy preparing noontime cocktails and pouring wine.
The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group is using Heritage Grill's very large kitchen as headquarters for its catering operations, and it plans to use the place for private parties in the evening. Drop by the bar around happy hour, however, when the kitchen does appetizer specials, and it seems like the party is already well underway.