Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Restaurant August, New Orleans LA

Great parades, great people, amazing food – really, the most “fun” I’ve had on a trip in the past year…and to cap off a wonderful visit to New Orleans I wanted to do something special – to go out on top, as it were. Having already done classic or refined New Orleans cuisine for most of my meals I figured a trip to the pinnacle of “haute-Creole” was in order –after the meal I had at Luke I was relatively certain that John Besh’s flagship wouldn’t disappoint. After a few more hours of wandering the quarter, people watching (the costumes are better than Halloween,) and shopping I made my way to the doors of Restaurant August approximately 5 minutes early for my 8:00pm reservation.

Entering the small lobby I felt comfortable – this place looked and felt like fine dining…not that other places in New Orleans didn’t, but this was more Robuchon or Keller than Clancy or Brigtsen. Greeted by a pair of friendly hosts my reservation was confirmed and I was led to a two-top along the wall of the front dining room – plenty of light, a great view of the street, and isolated from the sounds of the surprisingly loud bar. Water choices (sparkling, tap, bottled) were offered and I selected tap – it is appropriate to note here that twice during the meal I had to raise my glass or ask the server for water refills – a minor thing to some but a mistake that should not happen at a restaurant like August.

Greeted next by my waiter, a younger Asian fellow who appeared sporadically but was clearly working in other rooms of the large house as well, I was given a menu as well as wine/cocktail list which I declined. Going over the structure of the menu my server explained the 4-course, 7-course, and a la carte options while additionally noting that anything on either of the tasting menus could be ordered a la carte. In asking about creating my own tasting he stated that 2 appetizers, a main, plus dessert would be “probably a lot of food” – so I ordered 3 appetizers and a main with dessert to be decided on later.

Arriving first along with my coffee - the same excellent blend that was served at Luke – was French Bread and Butter. More “mini-baguettes” than the big loafs elsewhere these certainly fit the concept of fine dining, but unfortunately the exterior was a bit too crunchy and the exterior to interior ratio led to a rather dry experience. Served with the same delectable butter as at Luke I’m rather certain Besh must have this sourced for all of his restaurants and he should definitely let other local restaurants in on the secret.

My first course of the meal was my first amuse of the trip – an interesting fact given the places I normally dine. Served in an eggshell the dish was described as a seafood custard sabayon with paddlefish roe and brioche. Large in size I cannot say this amuse reinvented the wheel – in actuality it is something I’ve seen at multiple restaurants before and tasted like a less refined version of Picholine’s sea urchin panna cotta served in a yard egg shell. A nice way to start, but somewhat safe.

Arriving only seconds after I finished the amuse was my first course of the evening, for all intents and purposes the dish that has become Restaurant August’s signature dish - Potato gnocchi with Blue Crab and Black Truffles in Cream Sauce. Topped with shaved parmigiano-reggiano just prior to service and featuring an ample portion of crab and cream sauce plus small chips of black truffle the gnocchi were pillow-soft and perfectly prepared – the best textured potato gnocchi I’ve had since the French Laundry. Well complimented by the buttery sauce the crab was delectable and the cheese lent sharpness to the dish as well as some textural variation. If anything were disappointing about this dish it would be the truffles – largely lacking in both aroma and flavor I think the dish would have been just as good without their presence.

My second dish of the evening was the ever rotating (and bargain priced at $20) Foie Gras three ways. Another ever-present August item the nightly preparation featured a small dollop of mousse in “crunchy chicory crumbs” over mango puree on the left, a German inspired “Pickled Foie Gras Gateaux” surrounded by sweetened layers of cake and topped with Riesling gelatin cubes in the middle, and a pheasant and Foie pate with fig compote to the right. Served with buttery toasted brioche I absolutely loved the bitter/sweet contrast of the dollop, particularly spread on the bread but also quite liked the Gateaux which my server explained to me was pickled and slow cooked in pear vinegar. While I can’t say I loved the pheasant terrine I’ve never really fancied mixed fowl/foie outside of the version at Guy Savoy – that noted it was definitely as good as the preparations I had at Per Se and Daniel.

The second service issue of the evening occurred after the foie gras – my next course arrived literally 20 seconds after I finished the Foie Gras and it was cool – almost as though they’d not expected me to take my time with the foie (I admittedly requested a second plate of brioche and spent 20 minutes on the dish.) Aside from the temperature and rushed timing I will admit that for a mere $11 the truffle larded Sweetbreads picatta was quite excellent. Featuring two large and creamy pan-seared sweetbreads pounded flat the texture of the meat and the manner in which it contrasted with the wilted romaine were excellent while the herbed cream sauce was reminiscent of a refined ranch dressing with tones of lemon and capers peaking through and accenting the protein.

For my main I went with the trend of my trip and the timing between this course and the sweetbreads was perfect. Entitled “Sugar and Spice Duckling with roasted duck foie, McEwan’s stone ground grits and candied quince” the presentation of the dish was quite nice and I understood where the chef was going with the preparation – but unfortunately the duck didn’t live up to its complimentary pieces. Overly salted and somewhat chewy this was the first duck of the trip that I felt was of less than stellar sourcing quality – it was a tad gamey and the cane sugar sweetness wasn’t quite enough to temper the briny flavor. Where the duck lacked I was quite impressed by the vanilla and butter accented grits, perfectly cleaned and seared foie, and the sweet yet balanced quince. Consuming the duck with its companion carbs helped, but for $32 the main component of the dish should’ve been better.

It was at this point of the meal that I raised my glass (as noted above) to request a water refill and this must have been witnessed by one of the dining room captains who personally filled the glass and later pulled my server aside near the kitchen – apparently to lecture him – just prior to him bringing me the dinner menu. Browsing the dessert menu and seeing no bread pudding I decided to go with my gut and try something with Banana – in this case Pere Roux’s banana rum cake with Creole cream-cheese icing. Explaining that this dish would take “about ten minutes” to prepare I opted to make my way to the restroom and interestingly walked right past the pastry kitchen upstairs while where the chef was hard at work.

Returning to my table the captain stopped by again and apologized for the “inconvenience” explaining that they had a relatively new staff and many of their more experienced servers were off for the holiday. Explaining to him that it really was not a big deal but thanking him for the concern he told me the dessert would be “on the house” and sure enough neither it nor the coffee appeared on my final bill. When the dessert did arrive it was truly worth the wait – a hand-made layer cake fresh from the kitchen. Featuring interspersed layers of creamy banana butter cake soaked in rum with layers of creamy vanilla accented cream cheese icing and paired with white chocolate shavings, fresh berries, and a smear of caramel this dessert was truly beautiful and equally delicious.

Smiling contently the captain came to check on me again and we talked food for a few moments before I was brought the admittedly modest bill along with the nightly mignardises – two small “praline brittles” that were like crunchy pralines and two lemon accented madelines that were alright but certainly not Daniel, Alex, or Ducasse quality. As an added bonus I was given two of the nightly take-home gifts – on this day a miniature King Cake that was surprisingly moist, textural, and with plenty of cinnamon and sugar – I took the second cake home to my aunt who I met in Chicago and she noted it was still delicious 24 hours later.

Making my way out of Restaurant August I have to say that in total I was quite pleased with the meal but in reality it just didn’t live up to its (then) reputation as one of Gayot’s top 40 restaurants in America. Having had some incredible meals in New Orleans during my stay I guess I went into August expecting to be blown away but what I received was mostly great food, adequate refined service, and a very nice setting at a good price - but then again I received that at every dinner I experienced in New Orleans and in each other case the food was more rustic but just as good, the service more attentive and detailed, and the settings more “old school” but just as pleasant. While I’m glad I experienced August and I certainly respect Chef Besh’s culinary skills if I were given the option to relive one meal in New Orleans August wouldn’t be my first choice.

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