"Tilt your head back just a little bit more," the waiter said, helping me position a hollowed-out marrow bone over my mouth. "And cover your shoulders with your napkin. You don't want to dribble on yourself!"
While I sat in Meauxbar at the crossroads of silliness and sophistication, diners at neighboring tables turned to look at the spectacle unfolding as my server began to gingerly pour a stream of Herbsaint through the bone into my mouth.
"You're doing great!" cheered a stately woman with a helmet of frosted blonde hair.
Moments earlier, I was eating chewy, marrow-coated escargot which had been neatly tucked into the bone as if part of a game of culinary hide-and-seek. After finishing the first part of the dish, the final flourish (or challenge) was to drink the remaining Herbsaint through the hollow bone, picking up any remaining silken bits on the way down with bright licorice flavor.
Downing the Herbsaint successfully, I slammed the marrow bone on the table like I had just finished a shot of whiskey.
A couple of people clapped as my server congratulated me, "That was the most elegant I've seen that carried out so far!"
Meauxbar is a little bit French-bistro fussy and a little bit devil-may-care adventurous — the kind of place that takes the art of shotgunning a beer to hoity-toity heights by turning it into a boozy luge.
While Chef Kristen Essig's makeover of Meauxbar has a few carryover elements of dishes from her menu at Ste. Marie — such as the lemony brightness of the chicken farci, the herbal, earthy bite of the lamb loin — the restaurant feels more purposeful in its choices on and off the menu. Black and white dominate the decor and minimalistic figure sketches lining the walls add to a cozy, Parisian atmosphere.
The menu includes a strong stable of small plates and a handful of entrees, many of which also are available in smaller portions. All menu items flow together well, and it is wise to select two to three small plates per person to share with the table. Beginning with one of Meauxbar's takes on frites, with the moules frites arriving as a tangled nest of thin, wiry fries atop mussels soaking in a sea of cloudy, fennel- and anise-tinged broth.
There's an exciting parade of decadent plates, including beef tartare with perfectly balanced hints of cocoa and chipotle, and pork belly and watermelon salad with dazzling, briny-sweet pickled watermelon rind.
The perfect palate cleanser, and one of the menu's most outstanding dishes, is the tomato and shrimp aspic. Aspic gets a bum rap as a savory Jell-O nightmare, but Essig has reinvented it. Arriving like a slightly congealed soup, her aspic is a juicy, ruby-colored dish that deconstructs the tomato and rearranges its pieces in a way that is both recognizable and innovative. Supported by a slow-burning horseradish remoulade and the whipped, creamy texture of milled egg, the aspic is an ideal middle course.
The namesake salad isn't as engaging or polished as its small plate counterparts — it's serviceable but comparatively lackluster.
Meauxbar's spaetzle — chewy, eggy German noodles — is slightly browned and arrives looking appropriately wavy and abstract topped with Bolognese. The dish (which has a thicker than typical Bolognese) is chock-full of protein — ground chicken, beef, pork and pancetta — which work miraculously well together to create a hearty, warming meal that would best be eaten while bundled in a blanket by a fire. Unfortunately, the dish looks like Hamburger Helper in the restaurant's dim light, and would benefit from a presentation on par with its extraordinary flavors.
The check arrives tucked neatly inside a small card containing a seasonal "at-home" recipe for diners to try. This sense of generosity and consideration sets Meauxbar apart from some of its stuffier peers, and offers a peek behind the curtain of fine dining in New Orleans.