Over the past year, the 102-year-old restaurant's wine service has been hugely expanded and diversified, so much so that the only resemblance it bears to the old list is the little lamppost motif decorating its margin. The new wine list runs to 350 selections, or about three times its previous length, and has taken a quantum leap in quality. For the first time, the restaurant this year met the criteria to earn a Wine Spectator Magazine Award of Excellence.
The wine-list renovation is the work of Chris Ycaza, who was hired in 2006 as the restaurant's general manager and wine director. The previous manager, Melvin Rodrigue, is now chief operating officer both for Galatoire's and its Baton Rouge spin-off, Galatoire's Bistro, which are ultimately overseen by a board of Galatoire family members and owners.
Ycaza, a New Orleans native, had been manager of Restaurant Cuvee for nearly seven years and has worked in a long line of other local fine-dining restaurants over the years. When he came to Galatoire's, he says, he knew he had to treat the restaurant's longstanding traditions and subtle trappings with delicacy.
"We're dealing with a clientele that doesn't enjoy change very much," Ycaza says.
That could be a bit of an understatement considering some regulars still grumble about the restaurant's decision in the 1990s to switch to machine-generated ice cubes rather than require waiters to literally chop bits of it from block ice before mixing drinks. In 2002, a coterie of regulars mounted a highly publicized, but unsuccessful, letter-writing campaign to restore a waiter who management had the gall to fire over sexual harassment allegations.
The elevation of Galatoire's as a sacred cow of local culinary culture is hardly new. As far back as 1970, the groundbreaking local food-critic Richard Collin wrote in his book The New Orleans Underground Gourmet that "it would be looked upon as a calamity if anything ever changed at Galatoire's." But even then, Collin seemed to carve out an exception for the restaurant's wine service, writing that the "food at Galatoire's cries out for great wines, but these cries go unanswered." Some 36 years later, Ycaza still heard similar cries.
"From a business angle, I saw an incredible untapped potential," he says. "I know the clientele here and I know what they order at other restaurants and how much they spend. I knew if we gave them the opportunity they would do the same thing here."
There was certainly a long way to go with the list, which included a lot of the bottles available on your average supermarket shelf and some relics that inspired more nostalgia than oenophilic wonder for wine-savvy customers. Now, though, diners with fat enough wallets can taste their way through "vertical" sequences of vintages from high-end producers like Napa's Chateau Montelena or the Rhone's Paul Jaboulet. The Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay that had been the restaurant's de facto house white has been replaced by a vastly superior Domaine Talmard Macon Chardonnay for the same price, $28 a bottle. The waiters now routinely sell bottles for more than $400 and the list boasts vintages at the $1,000 and $1,200 range. There is even a selection of half bottles, which in the restaurant's singularly decadent atmosphere still seems like eating only half of an order of oysters Rockefeller, though Ycaza insists it is a popular option for some.
Chef Brian Landry, who took over the kitchen's lead spot last year at age 29, has made a few of his own additions to the restaurant's menu, but they are hardly radical changes. The restaurant now serves foie gras, for instance, and a duck entre that is poached in Steen's cane syrup and roasted. It is not as if the creamed spinach has been replaced with spinach-artichoke dip.
Still, Landry gets to show a little more of his culinary creativity during the restaurant's ongoing series of wine dinners, held on the last Tuesday of the month duirng the summer and through September. For these events, Galatoire's teams up with a guest winery, and Landry serves a table d'hote dinner in the second-floor dining rooms that would seem more at home in an ambitious contemporary Creole restaurant.
July's dinner, for instance, had braised shrimp with a large knob of soft fennel in lemon-thyme butter, a very lightly seared chunk of tuna with cubes of smoky tasso in a spicy broth hit up with cayenne and a main course of braised short ribs so tender the meat came apart in small, succulent slabs. There was not a souffl potato in sight, a rarity at Galatoire's, which might have been disappointing were it not for the garlic-smeared bits of tataki-style tuna that a waitress passed around on toast points.
The next wine dinner is scheduled for Aug. 28, followed by another on Sept. 25. Reservations are necessary. Galatoire's is also one of three New Orleans restaurants selected to host an anniversary dinner for the James Beard Foundation on Sept. 28 (see Food News).