WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
Restaurant August had such a long run at the top of the New Orleans dining tower that at least the perception of decline was inevitable. In fact, I think it happened, during 2008 and 2009, when John Besh started opening other restaurants and getting caught in other chefs' vogues. How long was he going to keep short ribs and ribeye cap steak on the menu? Well, August has clearly shifted into a new gear. Recent meals have been as fresh and original as I remember in the place's heyday.
The crux of John Besh's culinary strategy is the quest for the most interesting possible, locally raised foodstuffs. A scan of his menu reveals many unusual vegetables, meats, and seafoods, with the providers of most of them specified. A great deal of it comes from the mini-farm at his La Provence restaurant on the North Shore; more comes from Covey Rise Farm in Tangipahoa. So reliant is the restaurant on such provender that menus--even those for special events--change hours before they're offered to customers. The wine list has a broad enough reach to satisfy those who never get the same wine twice.
John Besh began cooking in his hometown Slidell. He kept at it while a Marina in the first Gulf War. When he returned, he became Chef Chris Kerageorgiou's favorite protege at La Provence (which Besh bought right before Chris died). Some time at the Windsor Court, a few stints in France, and a rise to local prominence at Artesia in Abita Springs preceded the opening of August a few days after 9/11. His good taste, sharp skills, articulate style and good looks made him a darling of the fine-dining set. His style is right with the times, understated in terms of richness, spice, and protein bulk--quite a contrast with the generation of New Orleans chefs before him.
In an early-1800s building, the restaurant has towering ceilings, antique-wood walls and columns, large windows, and a general feeling of antebellum grandeur. The wine room and the bar look a bit more modern, but are equally comfortable. The service staff is exceptionally knowledgeable, and the sommelier--a woman we first met twenty years ago at the Windsor Court Grill Room--is one of the best in town, too.
The menu is in constant flux, following the fresh food markets. This was the menu on the night of January 26, 2011, and is typical of the style.
Organic greens with pumpkin seed brittle, Point Reyes blue cheese and pumpkin seed oil vinaigrette
»Foie gras prepared three ways
»Salad of heirloom beets, crabmeat, La Provence bacon, baby mustards, quail eggs with black-eyed pea croutons
»Market vegetable "chop salad" with petite herbs and champagne vinaigrette
»Handmade potato gnocchi tossed with blue crab and fresh Burgundy truffle
»Slow cooked wild boar ragout, fresh milled buckwheat pasta and roasted quince
»House made venison sausage over warm lentil salad, pickled onions and Covey Rise tomatoes
Curried white shrimp bisque, steamed dumplings and crispy shrimp tempura
Redfish "courtbouillon," persillade crust, jumbo shrimp, blue crab and sauce bourride
»Truffle-crusted Mississippi flounder, butter roasted salsify, local Jerusalem artichoke and truffled crab jus
»Breaded speckled trout Pontchartrain, jumbo lump crab, wild mushrooms and sauce hollandaise
»Sugar and spice duckling with McEwen's stone ground grits, roasted duck foie and candied quince
Grilled pheasant breast, roasted cauliflower, harissa vinaigrette and Inglewood farm's pecans
Cast iron fried veal chop pannee over creamy polenta with Covey Rise broccolini and candied kumquats
»Texas venison loin in brioche "crepinette," Covey Rise baby root vegetables and huckleberry jus
»Prime filet of beef, oxtail marmalade, porcini and smoked marrow
»Southern cheese plate (Bittersweet Plantation Fleur de Teche, Ryals Dairy goat milk feta, Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson and Mountaineer
»Satsuma crepe "suzette," pistachio savarin and brown butter ice cream
»Trio of chocolate (white chocolate and cherry sorbet, bittersweet paté and milk chocolate bavarian)
Père Roux’s banana rum cake, Creole cream-cheese icing
»Winter "ambrosia," local citrus in lemongrass with crème fraîche
and meyer lemon sorbet
Napoleon of nougatine with Valhrona chocolate bavarois and salted toffee ice-cream
»Vegetarian tasting menu:
Truffled celery root custard, Gala apple, Forelle pear and walnut salad
Belle Ecorce chevre and local pecan tortelli, with butternut squash soup and pumpkin seed oil
Pan-roasted cauliflower "steak," glazed petite carrots, fried capers and wild mushroom vinaigrette
Baked lemon meringue, fennel shortbread, pine nuts, and lemon sherbet
Bourbon and citrus cured foie gras torchon, baby fennel, local kumquats and toasted brioche
Creamy cauliflower soup, P&J oysters, John Burke's ghost pepper caviar
La Provence yard egg raviolo with Jerusalem artichoke and fresh Burgundy truffle
Poached Maine lobster, spiced pork belly and lobster jus
Herb-roast duckling, red cabbage slow braised with apples and spatzle from the board
Caramel nougat "beignets," bittersweet chocolate, chicory, almonds
FOR BEST RESULTS
The six-course, $110 degustation menus are the best possible meals here. The latter is devised more or less on the spot with the day's best ingredients. Wine pairings can be had for another $40. A recent addition to the menu is a vegetarian degustation, easily good enough for a carnivore to enjoy.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The bar is too much less attractive than the dining rooms for that not to be noticed. The service staff has never had the polish of Commander's Palace or Emeril's.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency +2
- Attitude +3
- Wine & Bar +3
- Hipness +3
- Local Color +2
- Good for business meetings
- Free valet parking
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
The moment when chefs moved guys in suits aside in the management of grand restaurants was when Emeril opened his first restaurant, in 1990. Eleven years later, Chef John Besh took that game to the next level. Restaurant August was incontestibly one of the most culinary advanced restaurant in New Orleans, and even though competitors at that level appeared, remained a contender.
Besh now has six restaurants locally: twice as many as Emeril or any branch of the Brennan family. Having that many restaurants takes an uber-chef out of the kitchen. Indeed, Besh and his lead partner Octavio Mantilla were elsewhere on all of my last three visits to Restaurant August. If this made a difference in the food or service, it was lost on me. The only decline I see at August is in the dress of the customers--but that disease is endemic now.