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Search for Identity 

THE BAR & BISTRO AT LA LOUISIANE resurrects a restaurant location that has been on again and off again since 1881.

However you enter the cavernous Bar & Bistro at La Louisiane -- through the contiguous parking garage, by way of the adjoining St. Louis Hotel or via the inconspicuous front entryway that's adjacent to a "gentlemen's" club -- the first impression is of women, platinum blondes in red dresses and voguing against a gold-leaf backdrop, women with blown-out waves who could very well be rocking out to Pat Benatar, sensuous models flashing a late 1970s vintage, jet-set chic.

Artist Jaye Berard Smith, who owns the establishment with her son, Brett Smith, parades these women in numerous arresting portraits, which hang throughout the sprawling, windowless campus of hard surfaces and echoes. They would defy description if they didn't inspire so many: Various viewers weighed in with "from the pages of a 1977 French Vogue," "avant-garde" and "soft porn," the latter being the easiest description of any female sexuality captured in art. La Louisiane has had an on-again/off-again restaurant presence in this location since 1881; whatever inspired its resurrection in the spring around this unusual series of paintings, called "Movers and Shakers," they shape its modern, freestyle, slightly naughty identity. And identity can be the most difficult thing for a new restaurant to achieve, especially when a new restaurant's identity is left entirely up to the kitchen.

Typical of new restaurants, the menu at La Louisiane (affectionately called "La Lou") has yet to coalesce and comes off rather like an appeal to every taste than the assertion of a deliberate style. It produces some great moments, but these arise from disparate voices -- some speaking a Creole dialect, others Spanish, still others a contemporary American culinary slang -- that never quite harmonize. La Lou's kitchen is so removed from its dining rooms that you never smell food until it's placed beneath your nose; my guess as to what's happening in the trenches of Chef de Cuisine John "Chip" Flanagan's kitchen is that there aren't deficient cooks or poor ideas, just too many cooks and too many ideas.

Consequently, there are no fail-safe rules to ordering here. Based upon a spinach salad over-oiled with a warm pancetta vinaigrette (don't let those fresh leaves squeak!), and also upon horizontal leaves of romaine lettuce submerged in a tsunami of tahini dressing, it seemed perilous to proceed along the salad route. That is until a waiter rightfully needled me into ordering a lunch special: colossal lumps of summertime crabmeat tumbling like whitewashed boulders over a red slate of Creole tomato. Goat cheese-smeared toasts added crunch and a rangy tang. Someone in the kitchen loved that salad right.

Simpler is generally better when ordering from an unsettled kitchen, and this tactic proved successful with regard to a plainly elegant sweet potato and carrot "creme du jour," the potato's rounded sweetness cushioning the tooth-aching severity of pureed carrot. A classic bouillabaisse mellifluous with fennel and saffron was the entree victor one evening, and the most impressive dessert was also the least complicated: a fruit-and-cheese course pairing warm plums strung along a rosemary skewer, and mascarpone cheese revved up with lime zest.

Still, the simplest of all dishes -- steak -- disappointed twice, first when a hanger steak's livery succulence suffered the triple assault of a salty marinade, an extreme wash of chipotle butter and overcooking. During a subsequent dinner, a well-marbled New York strip was grilled perfectly medium-rare, but its skinny fries were cool, hollow and overall less substantial than the accompanying haricots verts. Press releases describe La Lou as a "contemporary New Orleans bistro." This emblematic bistro combination deserves more attention.

In a few cases the most regional-sounding dishes fared well. Chicken Grande is a tall order in a Mosca's town; La Lou's roguish version, bellowing with roasted garlic and rosemary and intensified with vinegar, delivers. Braised Mississippi rabbit, caramelized pearl onions and thickened braising juices luxuriate over fettuccine pasta, evoking Cajun country more than any region of Italy. But a regional ordering policy isn't failsafe, either, as demonstrated by un-crisp, pecan-coated sweetbreads, and a creme brulee whose sugar crust wasn't just burnt but blackened.

And besides, ordering only the familiar would mean overlooking the invigorating Gulf fish en escabeche appetizer (like pickled herring vacationing in Latin America), the squid ink-stained paella flavored with chopped clams and chorizo, and the Venetian chocolate pudding, which is as dense as peanut butter and 24-carat-rich. La Lou's gastronomic triumphs may be too scattered across the menu, and the map, to solidify the restaurant an identity, but other elegances compensate: a progressive selection of wines and educated servers to recommend them, a vigorous cocktail culture, a classy historical renovation, and local fervor. All converged during this summer's Friday-only lunches, when kiss-kissing took on the aerobic intensity of a competitive sport, and when even leggy women in ironed Juicy Couture denim and Manolo Blahnik pumps looked underdressed. On one such afternoon, a date and I snagged the dining room's last table, in the corner, beside a softly painted woman with a blue butterfly alighted on her knee. Outstanding food is by far not the only means by which a new restaurant can assert itself.

click to enlarge Feast for the senses: The sensuous, "Movers and - Shakers" artwork of co-owner Jaye Berard Smith adorns - the walls at THE BAR & BISTRO AT LA LOUISIANE. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Feast for the senses: The sensuous, "Movers and Shakers" artwork of co-owner Jaye Berard Smith adorns the walls at THE BAR & BISTRO AT LA LOUISIANE.
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