Prime rib has a secure a place on the menu at the Rib Room, where it's been the specialty, not to mention the namesake, for more than 50 years. But just about everything else had to audition for its spot on the roster after Rene Bajeux took over as chef last spring.
His arrival here hasn't signaled a transformation of the stately French Quarter stalwart but rather a timely reinvigoration. After all, the restaurant's defining feature remains its big-shouldered, mid-century style, expressed in baronial mahogany and brass throughout one of the grandest dining rooms in town, in the gigantic martinis served at lunch, in the fingerbowls of horseradish and great slabs of butter brought to the table, even in the cloistered, almost secret, warren of subterranean wine rooms. And people use the Rib Room as before — the expense account indulgence, the business lunch, the stage for celebratory meals and holiday gatherings.
To this Bajeux brings a culinary approach comfortably rooted in the old school and fired up with both modern Creole touches and robust local sourcing. A native of France, Bajeux has culinary bona fides in spades, and his Rene Bistrot was a contender for the city's best French restaurant during its too-brief tenure before Hurricane Katrina. He later had a short stint at John Besh's La Provence, followed by a series of jobs in the Caribbean and Texas. Today, his Rib Room isn't necessarily French but Bajeux gets his chef's message across with elemental flavors and admirable balance.
Seafood has long played second fiddle at the Rib Room. No more. In fact, dishes like the exceptional (though startlingly expensive) shrimp and tasso salad and the wild salmon with cucumber mint coulis can be some of the best options here, and bargain three-course lunches, recently featuring redfish, lemon fish or pompano, are worth scheduling a visit around.
Perhaps most exciting is the expanded role of the restaurant's massive rotisserie. Its chicken grand mere is classic, and its honeyed duck legs even better — but quail is best of all. Smoked and stuffed with Manchego and ham, these quail come out aromatic, taut and golden, and when you first cut into them, their tiny wings swell against the trussing string as juice bubbles forth.
This is a restaurant of ocean liner proportions, and not every corner is so tidy. A few dishes fall flat, including bland calamari "steak fries," underweight and spongy crab cakes, and a seafood risotto that, while tender, was hardly creamy at all.
Those who liked the Rib Room just fine before may be relieved to see prime rib isn't the only holdover. The veal Tanet, pounded and paneed, remains a lunch favorite, and the prime rib debris po-boy is making its own bid at modern classic status. A short, crisp French loaf overflowing with an enormous amount of chopped beef in rich gravy, it can make a $19 sandwich somehow seem reasonable.
Bajeux says more menu changes are to come and that training is ongoing too. Already though, this major restaurant is a more exciting place to visit both for all the old reasons and for plenty of new ones.