Extinct Restaurants

Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 921 Canal Street.

The historic Victor’s restaurant was a much-respected French-Creole dining establishment on Canal Street in the late 1800s. It was torn down to make way for the Maison Blanche Building in the early 1900s, but not before it moved to Bourbon Street, where it evolved into Galatoire’s.

When the Ritz-Carlton Hotel took over the Maison Blanche Building (a renovation that took almost three years), it opened that kind of major gourmet restaurant for which it was famous around the world. Someone thought it would be a good idea to call this restaurant Victor’s, in memory of its long-ago predecessor.

In its first two years, Victor’s at the Ritz-Carlton and its chef Frank Brunacci didn’t merely raise the bar for first-class dining in New Orleans. They wrote a new code. The restaurant had no limits in its importation of exquisite, exotic foodstuffs, or in the manner in which they were prepared and presented.

Victor’s was where the much less impressive M Bistro is now, buried deep in the center of the hotel, just off the third-floor lobby. Two walls made of windows looked out into a large lounge area (the spot where Jeremy Davenport now performs his jazz) and ultimately the courtyard. Tables were big and spread well apart. Three tables were ensconced in small semi-private rooms where one could see without being seen.

To say that the new Victor’s offered only the chef’s tasting menus at dinner is not exactly true, but it wasn’t far wrong. The basic dinner went for $65. (At the time our Eat Club dinners, which were comparable in scope, ranged between $40 and $50.) Allegedly, this bought a first course, an entree, and a dessert. In fact, four other small courses came to the table. An amuse bouche, followed by another one. A pre-dessert. At the very end was cheese–about which more momentarily.

For the $75 upgrade, another couple of courses showed up. For $115, they’d roll out the Chef’s Proprietary Dinner, in which the chef created a ten-course feast to match your tastes. That menu would be unique to your table, and not likely ever to be seen again. Dial the budget up to the $150 maximum, and you’d get a different wine with each course.

None of this sounds all that special now, because so many restaurants (including some rather scruffy ones) now offer similar multi-layered special menus. But then, the only parallels were at the Windsor Court Grill Room and Commander’s Palace’s chef’s table. And not even they had so many little sideshows.

All of this was served on special plates, the likes of which we’d never seen. I remember one that resembled a flattened funnel, with a small pocket at the bottom where the single scallop and three beet sticks resided.

Reading my review from 2001 reveals two things: 1)Frank Brunacci’s food was inspiring, original, and superb; B) it was ahead of its time, because now a lot of restaurants are serving this kind of stuff. It no longer seems nearly as far out as it did then. Some examples:

>>A thick puree of lentils and cream with a mild curry flavor, with slivers of duck ham (cured duck breast) and a few drops of basil oil floating on top. It came out in the kind of cup used for espresso.

>>Thin crisp wafers, crabmeat between each, with a slice or two of white truffle.

>>Grilled shrimp with a sauce made from blood oranges and (get this) olive oil ice cream. The olive-oil flavor, if I wasn’t completely imagining it, was very subtle indeed. Shrimp with ice cream? Not bad, actually.

>>Fricassee of frog, a stew with trumpet mushrooms and oversized green gnocchi of parsley mousse. (I loved it. Mary Ann, seeing into the future, found it emblematic of a problem Victor’s would soon encounter.)this place has (about which more later).

>>Grilled turbot (a big European flounder), showered with colorful but unidentifiable garnishes.

>>Rare squab breast, with an intense, almost gelatinous sauce, very tasty.

After all that, the cheese cart arrived. Its contained at least a dozen different varieties from all over the world. Fresh to aged, cow’s milk to sheep’s, mild to stinky. All were ideally ripe, served properly at room temperature. You were allowed to sample as much of it as you liked.

There was no charge for the cheese, no matter what else you ordered. That was a great idea, because not many New Orleans diners then or now will pay for cheese. Maintaining a good cheese selection requires throwing away far more than is sold. Beyond that, giving the cheese away allowed the restaurant to serve fromages made from unpasteurized milk, the sale of which which in some cases is illegal.

Victor’s opened with a fascinating wine list. The dinner described above came with an Alsace Pinot Gris, both a red and a white from Austria, and Tokaji Eszencia with dessert. Service throughout the night left nothing to be desired.

All the gourmets in New Orleans rejoiced over Victor’s. But the place lasted less than two years. Frank Brunacci was fired, even as he was winning every possible award and the highest ratings. Why? My wife saw the problem immediately. Although she loved the premises, the service, and the whole event-like quality of dinner at Victor’s, the food was, she said, “way too gourmet for me.” Why would someone like her come to a place like this in the first place? As the date of someone who loves this kind of food. But what is she supposed to eat if she can’t do fricassee of frog? Victor’s had no apparent option for people like my wife. (The chef would cook anything the customers wanted, but none of that was on the menu.)

Callers to the radio show identified another issue. Although one did get enough to eat at Victor’s, the teeny-portion thing just begs for a derisive reaction from mainstream diners. One more problem: Brunacci had an aggressive disdain for local products. He almost never had local seafood on his menu–a slap at the memory of the old Victor’s.

After the purge, Victor’s continued in a much less inspired (but no less expensive) way until Katrina. The storm caused enough damage to the hotel that it reworked almost everything. The Victor’s space reopened as a mediocre, high-end, cliche-Creole, boring hotel dining room. Not even Chef Matt Murphy–who had been there all along, but took over as executive chef for the hotel after the storm–ever made anything noteworthy of it.

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