The Elite List

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris December 03, 2022 14:00 in Dining Diary

We don’t have many gourmet restaurants in New Orleans. Only a handful, really. Let me define that term as I see it, so that the statement does not come off as harsh. A truly gourmet restaurant tends to be first very expensive, usually serving small portions of artfully-presented first class food, often in somewhat unrecognizeable ways. Recently we have lost one and gained one, keeping the total at five. 

We have excellent restaurants here like the Pelican Club and Galatoire’s, GW Fins, Ralph’s, Broussard’s, Arnaud’s, Chemin a la Mer, etc. All are first class, serving delicious New Orleans-style American food with impeccable service to match.  

But the ones on the short list are in a class by themselves. Not for everyone. I am thinking about this because we recently attended a press event at Cafe Normandie at the Higgins Hotel, and it’s been awhile since I have been in the presence of food like this. As an unapologetic non-gourmet, I recognize this level of finery when I see it, and am passing it along because people who are gourmets in town don’t have that many places to satisfy this desire.

Poor Cafe Normandie opened at this time in 2019, so it had less than three months to get in a groove before COVID permanently changed the world. We are happy to see them back, and the press event heralded their return Decmeber 1st with their Reveillon menu. Sadly, they cancelled their Reveillon due to staffing issues. But it was still a fabulous meal, and gourmets will want to watch this one.

But my adventure level was beneath the press lunch level, and Tom benefitted by enjoying my escargots and scallops.

The first course was oyster vichyssoise. It was a beautiful presentation replete with “stuff,” some of which was hard to identify. I knew fresh dill of course and mushrooms, but there were what appeared to be tiny sticks floating on top, as well as roe and flower petals. I asked the chef later and found out that the tiny shoots floating on top were crispy fried leeks. Little tiny raw oysters slid down easily, so easily as to go almost unnoticed. There was the requisite line of oil, rounding out a visually pleasing image.

This was creamy and flavorful and I didn’t even mind that it was cold. This will be shocking to hear from someone who does a food show, but the tiny raw oyster was the first I ever ate. (And the last, since I didn’t realize its identity until it was halfway down my throat.) Can I redeem myself by saying I willingly consumed the roe and flower petals?

The next course was the one that elevates this restaurant to the gourmet status described earlier, though all of these courses are in sync with it. Described as a boudin stuffed quail, one imagines a small bird with its cavity filled. Instead what arrived was a thick and meaty disc of bird and stuffing served on a plate with sauteed grapes and endive, the usual oil drizzle and a sauce of broken au jus completing the look. I was surprised it was room temp, making it a terrine. Although it was an unexpected presentation, the blend of these disparate flavors worked very well together.

Escargot, a cornerstone of the gourmet meal, was next. An equally beautiful and delicate presentation of the tiny snails, it included a small rectangle of perfectly baked puff pastry Vol Au Vent sliced horizontally to create almost a chest, with the top half askew to reveal the snails. Served atop a puddle of almond garlic cream, this was generously sprinkled with interesting microgreens (which used to just amuse me until I found out how good they were for you) and exotic mushrooms. The snails were nicely coated with the essential garlic butter, but there was no deep dipping amount of it . Not needed. The combination of flavors in this most interesting dish left nothing wanting.

Right about now a palate cleanser arrived. When was the last time you saw that? It too was quite a presentation, with the sorbet sitting in its own bowl atop a bowl of ice.

A pan seared scallop followed, accompanied by vanilla creamy grits, BBQ sauce and a light blanket of foam. The vanilla flavor was quite pronounced, and that’s not a bad thing. I just remember being startled by it a few years ago when I had a seafood sauce with tarragon. The scallop was plump and seared perfectly, the grits were indeed lusciously creamy, and the BBQ sauce added a nice contrast to all this, topped by foam, and who doesn’t love that? A very nice presentation. Tom was nuts about this.

Desserts were exceptional as well. We had an assortment of three different and equally delicious desserts. And not a one was chocolate! I have a hunch that this so-very-French-chef Virgile Brandel would consider chocolate too easy.

The dessert trio consisted of a beignet sliced in half and filled with whipped cream and berries, appropriately called a Berry Trifle Beignet. It was simple and elegant, and the best beignet I’ve had in a while. Beside the beignet was Champagne Fruit Tartlet, a sturdy square tart made with slices of poached pear, and a Champagne glaze dressed up with flower petals. My least favorite of these was the Dulce Croque En Bouche, a Pate Choux puff (baby eclair) filled with a caramel sauce. 

This meal reminded me of the kind of dinners I have had only since I met Tom. I didn’t know food like this existed before then. Such dining experiences used to be more plentiful, although they were special even in their heyday. But now, as dining habits have become way more casual, meals like this are harder to find. 

Cafe Normandie is the latest venue for people who want this leisurely, elevated food and service. There will always be a place for really fine dining such as this.