French Quarter: 730 Bienville Street (St. Louis Hotel).
The cover of The New Orleans Menu’s May 1982 edition bears the headline, “This Is What A French Fry Looks Like At L’Escale.” says the headline. Below that is a strange object that looks like it came from an M.C. Escher drawing. Inside a cube with windows on all sides was a ball that looked too big to have gotten inside.
It was an accurate portrait of L’Escale’s fries. They’d give you two of them with your entree.
“Extravagance Unchained” read the headline on the review. L’Escale was without question the most extravagant restaurant ever opened in New Orleans. Not even R’Evolution is quite as ambitious, although the prices were similar.
When L’Escale first opened, you had two choices for dinner. You could have the $75 prix fixe. Or you could have the $95 version. Both were what we would call a chef’s tasting menu now. (Such a thing didn’t exist in New Orleans then.) The $95 included an extra (but very grand) appetizer. That’s without tax, tip, or wines. In 2011 dollars, the $95 dinner would cost $177. There is nothing comparable to that around New Orleans today.
What was Mark Smith thinking? He was the owner of the hotel, along with a few others in the French Quarter. He had opened Louis XVI, which since 1970 had set the standard for full-tilt dining. He had pretty good luck with Louis XVI, and thought the market would support another step or two up the ladder.
To this end, he brought Chef Jean Louis Montestrucq to town. Montestrucq held the highest formal honors it was possible for a chef to have. Mark Smith told him to let ‘er rip, sky’s the limit. The space—formerly a lovely little French restaurant called Le Petit—was renovated into a sleek, mirrored room with the most subtle use of neon lighting I’ve ever seen. (The room is still intact, and has been the home of Louis XVI since 1986.)
The china and silverware was the best available. The servers were arrayed in white tie and tails and white gloves.
The $95 dinner began with Les Voyages Nordiques: an ice floe with an igloo, a sleeping polar bear, and a penguin carved in ice. Between it all were smoked and marinated fish—salmon, caviar, and oysters. Not oysters like at Acme across the street, mind you, but Belons flown in from France.
Now Les Symphonies Brettone: lobster, scallops, poached mussels, all cold. Then escargots, brought out in a little skllet made of pastry. Nice! Soupe des pecheurs: lobster, oysters crawfish. Delicious, but not quite as elegant as the clear consomme with a dash of Cognac.
Fish course: nothing from around here. Turbot, with a sauce made with expensive Champagne, as if that could be discerned.
Palate-refreshing time. A sorbet of raspberries, and “l’alcool blanc”: eau de vie, or French white lightning.
Now it’s time for steak in a shirt (the fabric was spinach). Or pheasant for two. Or quail poached in Chateau d’Yquem, one of the most expensive white wines in the world.
Salads next–after the entree, in the French style. Then cheese–many kinds, all at cool room temperature, showed off on a silver cart. A different cart presents an array of pastries, all made in house. Coffee is brewed in a French press pot. It was the first place in town to use one of those.
Patrick Charbonneaux, one of the best maitres d’hotel I ever met, was accommodating and warm, without a whiff of pomposity. I heard the chef had the market cornered on that. But he didn’t come out much.
And when he finally did come out, it was to leave the country. Suddenly. Some big problem. By then, the $75/$95 dichotomy died of its own outrageousness. It was replaced by an a la carte menu. The new card carried a $55 food minimum, to keep the standards up. The first time a couple spent less than that (but over $150, counting the wine and drinks), the $55 minimum applied. The foie gras hit the fan when these people got in contact with one the the television stations to report on this ripoff. People who otherwise would never have heard about L’Escale did so now, but not in a good way.
To keep that from happening again, the minimum was removed. Ads were run in which a couple said how glad they were that their flight to Paris had been cancelled, because now they could go to L’Escale instead.
Nothing would have helped. The local oil industry was being massacred by a steep drop in the price of crude, and expense accounts that supported places like L’Escale were becoming extinct. The restaurant followed suit.
Make no mistake: the L’Escale experience was very impressive. I’ve never decided whether it was actually good. None of my girlfriends of the time liked it much. Too much food, they said.