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Review: Lilette 

Ian McNulty finds the decade-old Magazine Street staple has lost none of its charm

click to enlarge Braciola and parmigiano toast are a couple of the longstanding favorites on the menu at Lilette. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Braciola and parmigiano toast are a couple of the longstanding favorites on the menu at Lilette.

Lilette was the hot new thing when it opened in late 2000. Glowing reviews came from the outset and chef/owner John Harris soon drew A-list accolades from national publications. With a menu that thoughtfully and smoothly commuted across French and Italian borders and with a stylish dining room, it seemed every bit the hip Uptown bistro of the moment.

  Nearly 11 years later, it still does, and the most remarkable part is how little has changed.

  Lilette is no time capsule. The specials board changes constantly. Moreover, last year marked the significant arrival of Bouligny Tavern, a small plates and cocktail spot wrapped in mid-century chic that Harris opened next door. Whether serving as its own destination or as an adjunct to an evening at Lilette, it brought renewed buzz to Harris' corner of Uptown.

  Lilette has maintained some of its best dishes. With a little selectivity, diners can assemble the same meal here in 2011 they had a decade earlier, course by course.

  When Lillete opened, Parmigiano toast, with its star-studded lineup of white truffles, wild mushrooms and marrow, required a little tableside explanation, but it quickly became an indispensible, and permanent, appetizer on the menu. A serious sweet tooth might have looked askance at goat cheese quenelles for dessert, but these subtly sour, lavender honey-touched dollops now snap to mind for many fans when Lilette is mentioned.

  Crafting contemporary dishes that hold their allure this long is one thing, but perhaps the better trick is how Lilette's original aesthetic continues to carry across the menu as new dishes and an increasingly pronounced Pacific influence join the mix.

  For instance, when a hearts of palm salad hit the table it seemed too light, too monochromatically white and too plain. But insert the fork and the dish seems to activate, as lemon works with olive oil and black pepper works with shaved Parmigiano. For those who have grown tired of pork belly on fine dining menus, Lilette's version could make you a believer. It's an unusual entree, really more of a salad served in a large bowl with mint, curls of sweet onion and chunks of watermelon and cucumber elevating big, fried hunks of the fatty star ingredient.

  While Lilette's bouillabaisse ranks among the best in town, I've had less luck with other seafood dishes here. A paneed black drum came out overdone and somewhat lost under its breading, for instance. But don't miss the crudo, an ever-changing Italian view of sashimi dressed with olive oil and thin, crisp vegetables.

  Steak tartare, escargot, duck confit and roasted chicken are all bistro standards done very well here. But it's Lilette's signature dishes that really seduce — where flavors progressively build into complete compositions that aren't always obvious from the outset.

  Harris could have parlayed his early acclaim into more restaurant ventures around town. Instead, he's distilled his original into a place with a firm, specific and crave-inducing identity. These days, having Bouligny Tavern next door for a drink hasn't hurt one bit either.

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