CBD: Canal Place, 11th Floor
Anticipation of the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair set off a spate of new hotel construction. Not ordinary hotels, either, but large, luxurious properties. Each of them felt it necessary to include a grand restaurant in their services. It sounded like a good idea, but it wasn’t long after the Fair ended that all but one of these new dining rooms vanished. (The Windsor Court Grill Room was the survivor.
Le Jardin at the Iberville Hotel (later the Westin, the Wyndham, and the Westin again) was the last of these magnificent restaurants to open. It was also the most striking visually. It was a leading candidate for Most Beautiful Restaurant Ever In New Orleans.
Le Jardin boasted an asset few other New Orleans restaurants have ever had: a view. The restaurant (and the hotel’s lobby) were on the eleventh floor of the Canal Place complex. The windows were as large as they could be made, and gave onto a magnificent vista of the curve of the Mississippi River, as well as most of the French Quarter. On a clear day, you could see the North Shore and far down the river.
If the windows had been covered, Le Jardin would still have been an arresting space. Tall and wide, the end closest to the river held terraces of greenery that lived up to the restaurant’s French name (“the garden.”) The wood that paneled everything had natural stripes in two perpendicular directions.
Like its competitors, Le Jardin opened with superb food and sharply-tuned European service. Tableside preparations were almost routine. There was just one problem: very few people showed up for dinner. That brought about an exodus of the best servers, and numerous chef changes and new menus. The result: the kind of inconsistency that keeps a local clientele from getting fired up.
Sometimes, a new chef clicked. Felix Sturmer toned down Le Jardin’s menus while at the same time making them fresh and innovative. It was interesting enough that in 1990 we had a dinner there with my radio listeners. Chef Felix’s theme–a challenge from me to him–was an all-white menu. All the food–except for one bit of color somewhere–was white. The most brilliant dish interleaved slices of sea scallops with grouper.
I made it clear that we didn’t care what color the guests were. The first guests were, in fact, African Americans. “We heard you talking about this and decided we had to be here,” the gentleman said. “We’re the Whites!”
The only consistently bright spot at Le Jardin through the years was its Sunday brunch buffet. Modest in terms of the number of dishes offered, it had much better food than the local buffet-cuisine average. The brunch kept Le Jardin going much longer than the other World’s Fair generation of dining palaces (excepting the Windsor Court). In fact, the restaurant is still there, serving hotel guests too unambitious to leave the building for a meal. The name has changed, and it bears no culinary resemblance to Le Jardin in even its low periods.