94 Friedrichs Avenue, just off Metairie Road
It’s only in recent years that Metairie Road has boasted a significant restaurant community. At this writing (2013), twenty active restaurants are open on that oldest of New Orleans highways. The first signs of expansion showed up in the 1990s, but you couldn’t really say it blossomed until after Katrina.
Before that, if Metairie Road was home to more than two restaurants at a time, it wouldn’t be long until one of them closed. This was true even when some very fine restaurants were involved. None was better, or had such a frustrating, disappointing end than La Savoie.
La Savoie opened quietly at the end of 1982. Pleasant without being atmospheric, it made up for this with an uncommonly gifted chef-owner, Gerard Thabuis. He hailed from the eponymous mountainous department of eastern France, adjacent to the Swiss border. Before he came to America, he cooked at Lassere and Tour d’Argent in Paris, was the personal chef to French President Charles de Gaulle. Before winding up in New Orleans, he was the chef of the Tavern on the Green in New York City.
Impressive a resume as that was, Thabuis’s main credential as far as local diners were concerned was his 1970s tenure as executive chef at Brennan’s on Royal Street. He was there during most of the decade following the split in the Brennan family, and exerted a powerful creative force on Brennan’s menu.
Metairie Road’s restaurant customers, then as now, were affluent but conservative in their tastes. Thabuis seemed to recognize this. His menu was mostly traditional French in the Escoffier style, with a few Creole fillips. Rich sauces and beautiful plates were everywhere.
The restaurant was a lightly renovated residence, with five discrete dining rooms each with four to six tables. The decor was attractively modern with many windows, most frosted with the restaurant’s logo. Two big round tables in the larger dining rooms showed off appetizers and desserts, all of which were well worth inspection. At the outset of the meal, you were invited to look over the starters instead of reading about them on the menu. The procedure repeated at dessert time.
Although much of the menu seemed familiar, Thabuis put a spin on almost everything. For example, his escargots broke away from the standard garlic butter to be enclothed in a heady red wine sauce with bacon, mushrooms, and garlic, all served in a hollowed French pistolette.
That was good, but better still were oysters La Savoie. No shells: they were poached in a cream sauce, ladled into a pastry, then made absurdly filling with bearnaise. A crepe filled with shrimp, artichoke hearts and a mornay sauce was another fine example of New Orleans French cooking in the 1980s. They had a great soup along these lines: bisque Nouvelle Orleans, a creamy, spicy potage of assorted seafood was unique and lusty.
Come to think of it, seafood was the strong side of the menu. Thabuis was ahead of the trends in buying offbeat fish. I remember having striped sea bass for the first time there. (On the other hand, it was served en papillote.) La Savoie did much with salmon, a fish that was not held in high regard in New Orleans in those times.
Coming at the job from the opposite direction, La Savoie had local broiled redfish Grenobloise, with very French sauce of lemon and capers.
You could get steak, in which case you would have a very elegant plate before you. Beef Wellington often ran as a special, with a perfect, truffle-studded sauce Perigourdine. Veal St. Charles came out with a Madiera sauce made of demi-glace and a tremendous amount of garlic–a risk on the chef’s part, but one that pleased bold palates.
The best entree in the house was chicken. Supreme de volaille “Epicurien” encrusted the breast meat with bread crumbs and mustard, then covered it with a brown peppercorn sauce. The duck was good, too, and made with the then-hip pink peppercorns.
Extra courses appeared at the table during the meal. They were always as quirky as they were unexpected. A tomato sorbet with a shot of vodka and a dash of Tabasco separated the seafood and meat courses. A lump of pink stuff that was revealed to be strawberry-flavored butter showed that the chef was prone to lapses of taste.
The dessert table was attractive, and everything on it was made in house–a very uncommon state of affairs in the 1980s. The fruit flan tarts were particularly wonderful.
But the great dessert at La Savoie was a pure Gerard Thabuis original: ananas au poivre vert. Fresh pineapple was sauteed tableside with a sweet green peppercorn sauce that started out a lot like the way bananas Foster is. It sounded crazy, but was good enough that I wonder why nobody else ever copied it.
The dessert course featured an exciting ceremony which, while not original to Thabuis, became his signature. He would remove the cage and capsule from the top of a bottle of sparkling wine, position his heavy French chef’s knife on the side of the bottle, and quickly stroke the blunt side forward. If all went well (I only saw it not go well once), the neck would break off cleanly and go flying across the room, the cork now encircled by a torus of glass. (If you ever see someone try to do this, back as far away as you can.)
Despite its goodness, La Savoie refused to catch on, and after two years it closed. (It would next become Mali D’s, and Gambrill’s after that. The building is now gone, never to kill another restaurant.)
Gerard Thabuis he left town after that. Last I heard, he was in Reno, Nevada. A terrific, engaging, likeable chef.