French Quarter: 430 Dauphine
The fortunes of New Orleans were on an upswing in the late 1970s. Restaurants answered the new Baby Boom’s affluence with some uncommonly grand, expensive restaurants. These went well beyond the unstudied, comfortable dressiness of the old-line dining institutions like Antoine’s and Galatoire’s.
The mainstream dining public was still dominated by the tastes of their parents, who had a taste for formality. Formality was soon to become characterized as pretension, but it hadn’t happened yet. So the few restaurants that decided to push service and grandeur to new heights attracted a certain number of loyal customers, who enjoyed the ceremony and specialness.
The restaurant property that is now Bayona was, for two decades, ruled by a doctrinaire French chef named Pierre Lacoste. His dining room had the over-the-top decoration of La Belle Epoque. Every reference in the place was to some vaunted French institution, with the suggestions that it should be revered in hushed tones. In the 1970s, hardly a restaurant in town could match it for gilding.
The dining room was orchestrated by Pierre’s wife. In contrast to the pompous chef, Madame Pierre (that how she introduced herself) was a lovely, hospitable, smiling lady. While she made it clear that you were about to be escorted through a dining experience in which you were required to put your petty preferences aside and allow the particular magic of Maison Pierre to dictate all, she was so pleasant that she made you want to go along with the program.
Maison Pierre was the first restaurant where I was ever served what we now call an amuse-bouche. And an intermezzo (a sorbet to cleanse the palate between the seafood and the meat). Or a post-dessert bon-bon. It was the first restaurant in which the waiter presented the cork from the wine bottle for me to inspect. (“Sniff it, to make sure it’s not rotten,” he said.) It was the first restaurant that had several shapes of wine glasses for different kinds of wine. None of this was due to my naivete; none of these things could be found in regular service anywhere else at that time.
In an article I wrote in New Orleans Magazine in 1975, I describe a dinner that had nine courses–in a time when the chef’s tasting menu was unheard of. No other restaurant offered anything like that, either, except perhaps for gourmet society dinners. Certainly not a la carte.
Everything was heavy French. The dinner started with oysters, moved to a consomme, followed by a fish course that was said to be rouget. That’s a French mullet, and in retrospect I wonder whether it really was. I wasn’t yet knowledgeable enough to tell fish species apart. My suspicion now is fueled by Chef Pierre’s practice in later years of using a good deal of catfish.
I remember the entree vividly. It was prime rib, but “Ah!” said Madame Pierre. “The chef, he cooks it on one side only, so the juices and aroma rise to the top. Surely you will like it medium rare. I will add fresh horseradish.” That really was as good as advertised.
At the end of the meal, Madame Pierre brought some sort of after-dinner drink and what she called “bon-bons,” which I remember as chocolate truffles. By then, I’d had the pants charmed off me. (The didn’t know who I was or what I was doing, I know, because I was truly anonymous back then.) The check came to $84–real money in 1975. I wrote a glowing article about this enchanted evening in tandem with a similar review of Louis XVI.
Maison Pierre would never be as good as the version I described at that time. Every time I sampled it again, I was more puzzled by why I liked it so much the first time. By the last time I went, it all seemed like sleight of hand. The catfish, among other things, shattered the illusion.
Maison Pierre closed in the 1990s, to be replaced by Torey’s, operated by Lee LeRuth, who had by then taken over LeRuth’s, his father’s spectacular restaurant in Gretna. That didn’t last long. Then it became Bayona. Chef Pierre has since passed away, and his restaurant forgotten except by the few whose idea of a great dinner called for its being ritualistic.