New Year’s Day in (John Besh’s) August
There are some lines that divide the South.
Lines we don’t always discuss or acknowledge.
But here in New Orleans, it’s hard to ignore. It’s there, right in your face, and sometimes you have to take sides.
I’m talking about Lagasse versus Besh.
Both started their restaurant empires in New Orleans and still call it home. Post Katrina, they were both instrumental in getting the New Orleans restaurant industry back on its feet. But with so much great food in this city and so little time, I was only ever going to try one chef’s cuisine.
And I’ve always been firmly in the John Besh camp.
Restaurant August is where it all started for him. Housed in a renovated historic French-Creole building, the restaurant strikes an imposing yet warm presence. It’s all high ceilings and sparkling chandeliers, exposed brick and wood floors, mahogany bars and red velvet curtains. It’s hard not to feel a sense of occasion walking in.
And a sense of celebrity too apparently. On this night we were seated, along with one other couple, in a small private dining room with Kim Kardashian and Reggie Bush who, I was informed by A who knows more about these things than I do, are a porn reality TV starlet and a pro-footballer of minor repute.
We did, however, miss the real celebrity, Chef John Besh, in the kitchen by one night. Tonight we were in the initially shaky but ultimately extremely talented hands of Chef de Cuisine Michael Gulotta.
Well, the amuse bouche of fritter of black eyed peas topped with a micro salad that I received was a good start. Deep fried carbs. Can’t complain. But A’s came out still frozen in the middle. Fine, it’s an amuse, they probably go through hundreds of them a night, so they prep and freeze them. Not ideal but understandable. But to send it out frozen was a rookie move. I’m sure one of the station chefs got a stern talking to that night. We sent it back, the kitchen was suitably apologetic and they promised to make it up to us.
One point to note on the menu. Although there is a tasting menu offered, you are encouraged to create your own tasting menu if you like. The dishes on the tasting menu are also offered a la carte in tasting sizes, which you can then mix and match with the various appetizers. Which is what we did.
We started with one of John Besh’s signature dishes. Foie gras three ways. Any dish that combines “foie gras” with “three way”, two of life’s most essential indulgences, has already won me over. This one included a foie gras “creme caramel”, a foie gras “baumkuchen” (a German “tree cake” named for its bark-like rings) and a foie gras “pastrami”. Now, I’m no stranger to foie gras as dessert. Chef Ludo’s foie gras cupcake from LudoBites 2.0 stands vividly in my memory. But these riffs on foie gras desserts were more of a savory play.
The foie gras creme caramel was topped with an elderberry reduction and was absolutely delicious. My favorite of the iterations. Not too sweet and maintaining a savory palate. The foie gras tasted surprisingly like a savory creme caramel. The foie gras baumkuchen was a foie gras terrine wrapped in layered sponge cake, accompanied by a champagne gelee and a balsamic reduction. The foie gras was more subtle here, with the sweetness of the cake standing out. The champagne gelee was also memorable. The foie gras pastrami, cured, smoked and rolled into a torchon, was more salty with the distinct taste of salt cod, which was used in its preparation. It was accompanied by a sweet pear chutney. Perhaps my least favorite of the three if I had to choose. The fishy taste threw me. As it would with most three ways.
Next up, the kitchen sent out a crab salad. Not a dish we had ordered, this was to make up for the amuse bouche mishap. The lump crab was served as a napoleon between alternating layers of stewed apple, ringed by a meyer lemon oil and sweet wine reduction, and topped with an apple crisp. The apple nicely tempered the flavor of the crab, adding a subtle sweetness.
The kitchen then generously followed up with another complimentary dish. The La Provence farmed yard egg raviolo with fresh Périgord truffle. Deceptive in its simplicity, this was probably the dish of the night. Not something I’d normally order off a menu full of foie gras, oysters, and game meats, I’m exceptionally happy that the kitchen offered this dish up. Served as a single large raviolo, this was just pasta, mascarpone to hold the egg in place, an egg cracked in sunny side up, and pasta to close the raviolo, served with shaved truffles and brown butter sauce. Perhaps it was the farm fresh egg from Besh’s La Provence farm, or the butter, or probably the truffles. But this was heavenly. Not a word I use lightly with pasta.
Next was another Besh signature dish, P&J Oysters three ways. Any dish that combines “oysters” with… never mind. You really can’t dine in New Orleans without eating your fair share of oysters, and these were some of the best we had in NOLA. Crispy fried with Louisiana caviar “ranch dressing”, pan seared, and horseradish crusted. The classic was the fried oysters with caviar ranch on the bottom for dipping. The pan seared oysters were served with a truffle sauce and submerged beneath a truffle foam. The horseradish crusted oysters were baked in a bechamel sauce and topped with panko bread crumbs and delivered a surprisingly strong horseradish kick. If these weren’t my favorite bites of the night, they were definitely the most craveable now I’m back in Los Angeles. I’ve since been to Mark Peel’s Tar Pit twice for the fried oysters to attempt to recapture the magic of this dish to no avail.
We followed the oysters with the truffle larded sweetbread “picatta” with romaine lettuce and herbed cream. You’d think that with all that truffle and lard this would be a flavor bomb. But after the oysters, it was rather plain. Still good, but not great.
From there, we moved onto our generously sized tasting portion entrees. The “pot-au-feu” of elk loin en crépin with porcini mushrooms, baby root vegetables and oxtail for me. And the pan roasted sable fish in brandade crust with cauliflower and sauce raito for the girl.
The “pot-au-feu” of elk loin en crépin was essentially a loin of elk wrapped in oxtail and wrapped again in caul fat, and served with an elk and veal jus, root vegetables and dried apple slices. I found the elk tough but perhaps that’s the inherent texture of elk. I haven’t eaten enough elk to know. But the oxtail was flaky soft and only held in place by the caul fat, which the waiter described as “meat Glad Wrap”. This was a gamey, meaty, heavy dish. Great in winter but I’m glad I finished with this.
I also tasted the sable fish and honestly didn’t really like it. There was an herbal taste, probably the raito sauce, that overwhelmed the fish for me. Lucky for me, this wasn’t my dish.
The elk loin didn’t leave any room for dessert, especially with the two additional courses the kitchen sent out, so we sadly passed on that.
But by this time it was well past midnight anyway.
Which is early in New Orleans, where liquor licensing laws allow bars to stay open 24 hours, 7 days a week.
With that, we’d seen out January 1 with a meal that set a high bar for 2010.
I guess this year, the year began in August.Restaurant August 301 Tchoupitoulas St
New Orleans, LA 70130