Exhibit one for this ersatz theory is Table One Brasserie. There is just no other way I can get my mind around the fact that it was only a year ago this week that this restaurant first opened its doors. That was when it was reasonable for an upscale, Uptown restaurant to have a line of heavily-armed federal agents, police and insurance adjustors waiting eagerly for tables, and local patrons accustomed to fine-tuned fine dining could be wowed simply by the use of real plates and real glasses somewhere in their zip code.
Memories of that scene are as clear as yesterday, yet they seem to belong to another era under the soaring ceilings at Table One these days, where business people break bread during the bustling lunch service, families dress up for Sunday brunches and couples dine by candlelight in the evening.
Fictional physics theories aside, the restaurant's location in a 19th century townhouse at the edge of the Garden District has to have something to do with how well it has established itself. The structure had for years been home to an auto parts store, and passing by it on Magazine Street, the right set of ears could practically hear the old building pleading for some higher and better use. In 2004, a new owner did the heavy lifting of a dramatic renovation of the place, transforming it into the Living Room Steak and Lobster House, which closed by the summer of 2005.
Enter the next owners, Hicham Khodr and Tarek Tay, the Lebanese-born local restaurateurs who together own the Byblos restaurants. (Khodr also plans to reopen the landmark Camellia Grill, which he bought in August). They were planning Table One as a bistro but responded to the Katrina crisis by simply opening in the first week of October with a few Middle Eastern dishes from Byblos' menu.
A few weeks later, they brought in chef Gerard Maras, the local restaurant veteran who was chef at Mr. B's Bistro, his own restaurant Gerard's Downtown and Ralph's on the Park, among others. At Table One, he began cooking a mix of bistro and contemporary Creole fare around the time when New Orleanians started expecting more from a restaurant than merely the accomplishment of getting open.
Those familiar with Maras' cooking from other restaurants will recognize some of his greatest hits on the Table One menu -- like a filet mignon in a peppery port and raisin sauce or his smooth-as-liquid gravlax. When all cylinders are hitting, the food at Table One is beautiful, delicate and subtle. But that isn't always the case, and the restaurant's biggest challenge is a nagging inconsistency.
The first few times I visited, the food was excellent. I had the wonderfully fresh spring rolls, stuffed with avocado and green sprigs of radish sprouts. I had meaty, sweet, crusty-edged scallops with green beans shredded like noodles and a slightly bitter citrus glaze. I had toothsome pork rilletes with flinchingly sharp mustard. I had the chocolate Natilla -- a rich mousse topped with fresh cream and a "granita" of finely ground ice flavored with chocolate, a spectacular culinary special effect. I ordered the same dessert again and the anticipated chocolate chill of that granita was replaced by raw grains of sugar for an overpowering and unpalatable crunch. The $29 rib-eye was perfection when I ate it at the bar one Monday night, cooked to a rosy medium rare and seasoned with sea salt and pepper over vividly fresh greens. Another night, the same order yielded a fatty mess.
These off notes notwithstanding, Table One kept drawing me back. The ambience is gorgeous and the service has always been top notch. I started going more often for lunch and liked the results better.
The lunch menu features steamed mussels with fennel, red onions and a buttery broth that seems to get progressively spicier with each spoonful. The cheeseburger is made from a blend of pork sausage and beef topped with a tangy sheep's milk cheese and marinated tomatoes. A better bun than the generic and overly large one used here could elevate this burger to true greatness, while the potato salad served on the side is as plain as blank white paper. The restaurant's shrimp remoulade is closer to the French version than the familiar New Orleans rendition and here it is a deliciously creamy, herbaceous blend singing with garlic draped over the large, flavorful Gulf shrimp.
Shrimp remoulade is one of several dishes found on both the lunch and dinner menus. Another is the "fish of the day," which has always been puppy drum on my visits. This is a dish I want to keep eating and eating. Helpful then, that it comes as a big serving of two generous filets. They are grilled with a light char on the exterior that gives the otherwise clean, light-tasting fish a gentle smokiness and appealing outer texture. The lemon-butter sauce is wonderfully fragrant, especially when the sauce is at its most liquid state just as the plate hits the table.
Even discounting the Natilla's curious sugar topping, the dessert menu is a seduction for lovers of chocolate. A molten chocolate cake delivered the promised lava flow of chocolate filling inside a crisp cake shell and a slice of the "bette noir" cake -- or "black beast" -- was a plated excuse to eat chocolate fudge with a spoon.
Table One's opening a year ago was a demonstration of guts, brains and hope for the future -- which appears to be the recipe for success in just about anything in New Orleans these days.