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Meat and Mangia 

A steakhouse, reborn as an Italian restaurant, sticks close to its roots

Only through the Wonderland prism of contemporary New Orleans could it make sense that the moment a restaurant known for steaks removes the term "steakhouse" from its name and expands its menu well beyond sizzling cuts of beef would it simultaneously become a more prominent destination for steak purists. That's the case for Mr. John's Ristorante (nee Mr. John's Steakhouse), and, of course, its unlikely status has to do with the long shadow of Hurricane Katrina.

The restaurant first opened in 2000 serving a classic steakhouse menu complemented by a few seafood dishes. Just before the hurricane, however, owner John -- "Mr. John" -- Santopadre and Venice-born chef Christian Rossit wrote a new menu. Put on hold by the storm's aftermath, the restaurant reopened in April with a northern Italian-style menu that happens to keep great steaks at center stage -- coming on the scene when the array of steakhouse competition in the city was much diminished.

And that's still the case today. While suburban steakhouses bounced back readily and a few new places have opened in the city proper, the list of New Orleans steakhouses that are gone includes Smith & Wollensky, Chateaubriand and the original Ruth's Chris Steakhouse (its North Broad Street building is now advertised for lease, though the company has said it plans to open elsewhere in the city.) Others that have indicated they will reopen but still remain shuttered include Crescent City Steakhouse and the Steak Knife (which is planning to reopen in a new West End location soon). There's been no word either way from Charlie's Steakhouse.

Mr. John's menu has tripled in size with the Italian additions, but a solid majority of patrons head straight for the steaks. The restaurant promises that the beef is all USDA prime and when the steaks arrive snapping with butter on a searing-hot plate and you take your first bite there seems no reason to doubt it. They are expertly prepared and the kitchen handles customers' specifications with Žlan. Order your filet "Pittsburgh style," for instance, and you get a pillar of lusciously red, rare beef crusted over with blackened seasonings that delivers a wonderful contrast in both temperature and texture.

Further, you can name the size of your steak. There are standard sizes listed but the chef cuts most of his steaks just before cooking them and regulars frequently request smaller or larger servings. An 18-oz. filet was one unusual request recently accommodated without pause.

Even if you come solely for steak, side dishes will give away the Italian focus of the kitchen. Polenta is a more common steak accompaniment here than mashed potatoes, as is a side of smooth and creamy risotto.

There are some disappointments on the non-steak portion of the menu, but everything at least starts on a solid foundation. The irresistible sourdough olive loaf is baked in house and served hot from the grill, and the pastas are similarly made fresh in the kitchen.

The gnocchi are tender, perfectly cooked and graced with a hearty red sauce holding slightly sweet onions and house-made pork sausage fragrant with fennel. The fettuccine elevated a chicken/shrimp/cheese sauce combination that I had initially written off as the cursory poultry selection. Wrong. Though extremely heavy with that parmesan sauce, the toothsome fettuccine shown through and cradled chicken cooked crispy with the skin on. The shrimp in the same dish were punishingly salty, however, which is a frequent hazard here. The same heavy hand with the salt rendered the broth of a tortellini soup practically inedible.

But the tortellini in a mascarpone cream sauce with ribbons of prosciutto and crisp green peas produced one of the best appetizers, served in a portion so large it must either be split several ways or ordered as a main course. Another great appetizer is the meltingly tender carpaccio, made with seared tenderloin sliced paper-thin and served chilled with olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Fried green tomatoes, though attractively presented with hunks of crabmeat and fresh greens, suffered from a plain batter, a flaw shared by the calamari. Both dishes lack sparkle, but the latter did come to life with a spontaneous tableside modification one night: the marscapone cream sauce from the tortellini dish proves an excellent dipping partner to the fried squid. Much better was the shrimp scampi, which included four enormous shrimp with heads intact but the shells removed to expose the meat to a lemony sauce studded with minced garlic.

Although seafood is not the major specialty here, the menu has a decent selection and the kitchen does a good job with those dishes. An unusual special one night featured what must have been most of the fish in the house, combining appetizer-sized portions of tuna, salmon and snapper, each with a markedly different preparation but served together on one plate. The salmon was wrapped in a spiral pattern around herbed cream cheese while the tuna was very lightly seared on the outside and served atop over-cooked lentils. The snapper was the best, sautŽed and gilded with butter and a sprinkling of crabmeat.

Other specials tend to be needlessly complex. With so many high-quality steaks on hand, why bother with beef Wellington? Why hide such a pretty face behind a veil? A steak with an assortment of Italian sides and maybe a pasta dish to split shows the cooking here at its best. Much of the dinner menu -- including all the steak -- is available at lunch, which also has sandwiches and pizzas made with the house-made sausage.

The service style at Mr. John's is friendly and competent and management seems well aware that they have a chance to win new regulars cast adrift with so many old favorite steakhouses closed or in limbo.

click to enlarge Chef Christian Rossit prepares Italian dishes and steaks at - Mr. John's Ristorante. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef Christian Rossit prepares Italian dishes and steaks at Mr. John's Ristorante.


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