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The Country Club Restaurant: Hidden Charms 

The pool scene is in back, but the kitchen up front is cooking up the hottest news in Bywater dining.

For a long time now, the Country Club has been something like a speakeasy of the pool and patio world. From the street, the property presents all the classic beauty of a 19th century New Orleans home, renovated with perhaps a bit more flair than its neighbors but certainly giving no indication of the sprawling, lushly landscaped pool area found in the rear. This is a private club serving a predominantly gay clientele and anyone else in the know who wishes to pony up the annual or daily membership fee. The Country Club's new restaurant is a separate affair and is open to the public. But it too has been operating a little like a speakeasy, sitting politely in the front rooms of the Creole center-hall house and remaining effectively masked by the Country Club's reputation as a place for sun and fun, not necessarily quality dining. But that's changing. Since taking the helm in November, chef Miles Prescott has been giving the Bywater something to talk about, providing inventive cuisine in a neighborhood practically starving for it and creating one of the better dining values anywhere in the city.

Prescott, a veteran of the kitchens at Bayona, Delachaise and Peristyle, is now hitting his stride with a menu that draws its strength from an array of fine raw ingredients and house-made staples. There is a cheese list with at least a dozen choices, for instance, and Prescott takes the time to make his own charcuterie.

There are always a few specials, and these can run toward the exotic. One night, he served an appetizer of sliced pork loin with the dueling flavors of a smoky adobo rub on the crusty surface and a sweet, honey and ginger Asian-style sauce underneath. On another night, the special fish was a considerable slab of escolar with an unusual cream sauce studded with hedgehog mushrooms, an earthy, nutty wild variety that complemented the meatiness of the fish well. Crawfish beignets had whole tails inside the firm, fried crusts, and strong mustard and dots of cool, oily cilantro sauce for dipping. The chilled beet salad was as refreshing as it sounded, with a mix of crisp greens, tender golden beets and a light-tasting wash of orange and basil.

The Country Club's menu provides another in the growing list of local opportunities to sample clams, long a rarity in New Orleans. The bowl of littleneck clams suffered from the occasional grittiness but was redeemed by a vigorously spicy tomato broth with knobs of brick-red, bracingly hot chorizo sausage. Drapes of soft, mellow fennel provided welcome relief from the red pepper heat of the dish.

My favorite choice on Prescott's current menu is the hanger steak, prepared simply with a lightly applied demi-glace to allow the delicate balance of chewiness, surface texture and full-blooded steak goodness to play out across the palate. The mildly bitter broccolini greens picked up a subtle Asian flavor from a skim of ginger-laced liquid at the base of the plate and made for a satisfyingly updated steakhouse side dish. At $16, it's another example of great and affordable eating at the Country Club.

A close second favorite is the cassoulet. This is hearty fare to be sure, but it's good enough that I would eat it again even on a warm night. What arrives is a very modest looking ceramic pot capped with what appears to be large breadcrumbs liberally dusted with Parmesan. The crust turns out to be big slices of andouille sausage, and beneath lurks a heartwarming, belly-filling casserole of cannellini beans mixed with shreds of duck and pork, all bound together with a thick tomato broth.

There is usually a ravioli special, but with this I've had mixed results. The pasta has always been pleasingly al dente, and when the filling was a mix of fennel, ricotta, a dash of sharp, sweet sherry and the aromatic addition of ground chestnuts, it was a hit around our table. I was not fond of another incarnation in which sweet peas were the main ingredient and the filling tasted bland and washed out.

A more reliable staple on the menu is a short list of grilled flatbreads, which are essentially pizzas. One with figs, grated Parmesan and proscuitto had practically as much proscuitto as crust. The char-edged, thin slices of salty meat were piled atop each other like leaves. Another with a Portuguese bent had ground linguica sausage anchored by spicy tomato sauce. A whole poached egg rested at the center, waiting to be broken open and spill yoke across the crust, which remained admirably stiff despite the soaking. These make fine appetizers shared around the table or a light meal for one at the bar.

It's hard to resist such an unusually large cheese selection at dessert, but the ice creams and sorbets are tempting as well. They are made in house and taste so light that they seem to vanish on the tongue rather than melt.

As the weather heats up, many Country Club regulars will surely be arriving at its elegant doorstep with beach towel in hand. I suspect many others, however, will be heading for the dining room rather than the chaise lounges out back.

click to enlarge Chef Miles Prescott has brought fine contemporary Louisiana cooking to the Country Club in Bywater. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef Miles Prescott has brought fine contemporary Louisiana cooking to the Country Club in Bywater.
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