Muses was a rare exception to my habit of staying away from newly-opened restaurants. I wandered in thinking I would be dining at Rico’s, which had shown promise in the three years it was at the corner of Hammond Highway and Lake Avenue. That Bucktown address already had a history of restaurants coming and going over about twenty years.
Indeed, Rico’s sign was still up. But I found a new restaurant with a style and menu quite upscale of what Rico’s had been. Muses and its chef-owner were so charming–and the restaurant seemed so tenuous–that I thought I’d better get the word out quickly.
In Bucktown, there’s a restaurant stereotype that posits, among other things, a psychological ceiling on prices. For most people, Bucktown meant a fried seafood platter for ten of those bucks. Or a poor boy sandwich for cheaper still.
But Muses was a gourmet bistro. It was created by Victoria Grulich, a New York native who spent 14 years in France (learning the chef’s craft during the stay) before returning home. She came to New Orleans with the idea of pursuing a career as a television chef. That, however, requires some sort of restaurant home base, and Muses was to be that.
She didn’t invest much money in the premises. George Rico had left a reasonably pleasant restaurant behind. Just a paint job, and cotton covers for the stackable chairs were needed. Victoria put most of her efforts into cooking brilliant food. The French accent was hard to miss, but she incorporated other flavors. And, because Bucktown is historically a fishing village, a lot of seafood.
Cloud-like crabmeat beignets appeared with a zippy wasabi dipping sauce. The shrimp for the remoulade were grilled instead of boiled–a nice idea no other chefs had yet adopted. Not all of the seafood came from the lake across the street, however. The big bowl of mussels in a creamy broth with savory herbs was the first big hit here.
Victoria made a pate de campagne in the French bistro style. Salmon and tuna tartare, with a sharp dressing of lime juice and sesame oil, was a perky pile. The most talked-about entree was fish roasted on a cedar plank. It combined the effects of grilling, steaming, and smoking. Trout meuniere was wet down with brown butter, capers, and crabmeat.
Muses had a rack of not just lamb but veal. And a pork chop with a Southwestern flavor on the outside, and French Muenster cheese on the inside.
When Muses first opened, they offered a magnificent cheese plate with six selections, all in perfect condition and served at the right temperature. It wasn’t the first failure to get New Orleanians to eat cheese at the end of a meal, and won’t be the last. Instead, the diners finished with lemon tarts or pecan bread pudding or the super-dense chocolate terrine.
Service was not at the level of Victoria’s cooking. On busy nights, she often had to leave the stove to get the food out to the tables.
There were other problems. Enough that when Victoria’s lease ran out after a year, she was convinced that Bucktown was the wrong place for her and closed Muses. Her plan was to find another location for her restaurant.
She never did. I have no idea where she wound up, but I don’t think she’s in New Orleans anymore.