As it was when I dined at Balise a couple of weeks ago, the place is busier than I expect. I'm glad I made a reservation. We sit at a smallish four-top next to an escape door, complete with fire alarm on the wall adjacent. Chef-owner Justin Devillier (he of La Petite Grocery) has not performed a deep renovation of the building. The present space has the feeling of a French bistro, with the floors in this part of the restaurant totally different from the floors in that part. But it looks like a lot of people like the look. Much more thoroughgoing is the inventiveness of the kitchen. In some ways, the food has an antique quality. The sort of thing you'd get in a much older restaurant. But that fits the neighborhood, especially for a guy my age, who remembers what the restaurants around here were like forty years ago (i.e. Maylie's and Turci's). The Giancolas and I like cocktails, and we had a round of them. Mine was a drink called the Anti-Churchill, which I recall reading about somewhere. The waiter tells me that it's the most popular drink at Balise. It's Hendricks gin, Cocchi Rosa, and chamomile grappa, shaken and strained. It packs a punch, but had a flowery quality, too. I can't find an explanation for the name. I get an order of fresh-cut fries for the table to help with the cocktails. Barbara has a salad special, and Vic gets smoked fried oysters. Both are happy, but there's no way that they could have been more pleased than I was with the soup of the night, a creamy seafood chowder, made with an assortment of local (no clams) fish and shellfish. A light drizzle of Tabasco brought it to perfection. Had it not been so rich, I would have gone for seconds. The kitchen sends us the same amuse bouche that everybody else in the room enjoyed--a few generous flakes of crabmeat on some crunchy leaves. But we also get an unasked-for order of rigatone with a bolognese-style sauce. The meat part of this is beef cheeks, which melt in the mouth. The Giancolas are both interested in the braised lamb and shrimp, a thick stew with a fascinating array of other ingredients--oyster mushrooms, some dramatic, crisp leaves with black veins, and a few other things. It tastes as good as it looked, which is saying something. I have an appetizer of seared cobia for my entree. I already had a little too much to eat, and Balise's menu seems stronger in the small plates than in the large ones. It is basic in preparation, but that's a good thing for cobia (a.k.a. lemonfish). The Giancolas skip dessert. I have the combination of satsuma and coconut sorbets. Speaking of satsumas, how is my cat of the same name doing? Fine, growing like a weed, and soon to become an outside cat with his brother, Valencia. It was supposed to rain tonight, but that doesn't come until I get home. I do have to deal with very high winds on the Causeway. And a tornado watch for the overnight. The weather stays weird. <h5><strong>Balise.</strong> CBD: 640 Carondelet St. 504-459-4449. </h5>
Anecdotes & Analysis
The Central Restaurant Frontier in New Orleans has pushed noticeably upstream in recent years. Large new buildings and renovations of old ones invite sophisticated new places to eat in a part of town where there were only blue-collar lunch houses for decades. The entire process can be summed up by what became of Ditcharo's, at the corner of Carondelet and Girod. "The Ditch," as the place was called by its regulars, was a utilitarian lunch place with a bar full of regulars for many years. But absorbing energy from many new restaurants in the area, it has become a gourmet bistro, complete with an original menu and a two columns of specialty cocktails and wines. And a five-star chef-owner: Justin Devillier, of La Petite Grocery fame. This is real progress. For me, the memory of Maylie's restaurant--a remnant of another era of dining in the CBD--casts a pleasant spell around Balise and the similar restaurants in this long-underused part of town. In some ways, it's like the French Quarter dining scene, but without the tourists. In other words, you have to be a local to appreciate a restaurant like Balise.
The first French explorers who came to the mouth of the Mississippi River three hundred years ago found that a diagram of the river looks like a bird's foot--"balize" in the French dialect of these pioneers. (It was more often spelled with a "z" instead of an "s," perhaps to give an academic topic for discussion during the cocktail portion of the evening.) To this day geologists call the modern mouth of the river by that name. This suggestion enters the menu both as an anecdote (explained at length on the restaurant's web site) and in the rustic style of much of the cooking.
The dining rooms--some of which are at the top of a steep stairway--were not remade to any great extent by the new owners. The floors are a mixture of tile and concrete, reminiscent of more than a few old restaurants around town. The look suggests a very casual cafe, but the service and wine and cocktail lists are sophisticated as those of any other gourmet bistro hereabouts. In the beginning of the evening, the bar is more active than the dining rooms.
For Best Results
Reservations are essential. This restaurant is still in its honeymoon period, and it stays busy at dinner.
Balise640 Carondelet St, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA