May 24, 201210:34 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
The T Is Silent
I do my best to avoid repeating myself. I feel obliged to cover new ground for the most part. Sometimes, however, I end up writing about the same chef. It's not because I'm in a rut, but because some chefs keep doing noteworthy things.
René Bajeux, for example, has been bouncing around from restaurant to restaurant like a drunken wallaby for the last couple of years. Each time he turns up somewhere new, I am compelled to cover it. Not that it's a burden. I have written in the past, and still believe, that Bajeux is one of the best chefs in New Orleans. His work at the Windsor Court's Grill Room was sublime, and the first incarnation of his namesake restaurant in the Renaissance Pere Marquette hotel was my favorite restaurant in New Orleans. I followed Bajeux to each of the local establishments he's helmed since he returned from a post-Katrina exile in the Caribbean, and I've enjoyed them all to varying degrees.
Still, nothing he's done has equalled René Bistrot to my mind. So you can imagine my reaction when it was announced that Bajeux would return to the Renaissance – albeit the Renaissance Arts, and to René Bistrot. No? I was giddy. Giddier than normal, that is.
Bajeux's approach to cooking hasn't changed regardless of the venue. I could probably recycle what I've written about him a half-dozen times. He's a French Master Chef – one of a few dozen in the United States – and classic French technique comes through clearly in his food. He has always cooked seasonally, taking his cues from the ingredients available at any given time. You won't find crabmeat or pompano on his menu year-round, for example. He's doing his own blood sausage, smoking his own salmon, and making all of the restaurant's pastries and pasta in-house at the new Bistrot.
The menu will be familiar if you dined at the restaurant's former location. The Alsatian onion and bacon tart, the onion soup, the escargot with Pernod and the sautéed skate wing with lemon-caper butter have all returned. The three-course prix fixe menu is back as well; it changes daily, and while $23 is a few dollars more than it previously cost, it's still a reliably good deal. Each day there's also a different special, including beef short ribs Bourguignon on Monday, seared salmon with a vegetable roulade on Wednesday and whole lobster with tomato-cognac sauce, ratatouille and basil pasta on Friday.
One new item is the “tradition” section of the menu. This is where you'll find rabbit leg farcie over turnip sauerkraut with a tarragon-riesling sauce, and tripe à la mode de Caen. The latter is, to my knowledge, the only tripe dish on a fine-dining menu in New Orleans. It may be an acquired taste, but when it's cooked properly, tripe is fantastic. Bajeux serves the melting strips of offal in a rich tomato sauce with carrots and steamed potatoes that have been cut into elongated barrel shapes.
The appetizer section of the menu currently has Portuguese sardines on offer. Two head-on fish are served in a cast-iron skillet over sautéed onions and peppers, and garnished with kalamata olives and roasted garlic cloves. The combination of juice released from the fish and olive oil from the sauté makes for an excellent sauce for the olive-bread served before you order.
The Bistrot took over the space that was formerly La Côte Brasserie, a restaurant that Bajeux helped design and open. Though they're still making some modifications – the carpet and chairs will be changed, and a curtain will divide the restaurant's bar and dining room – it's largely unchanged. The dining room looks bigger than the Bistrot's former home in the Renaissance Pere Marquette, but Bajeux assured me that it's an illusion. Regardless, there's ample space between tables, and you can still dine at a bar that faces the open kitchen, if that's your thing. Bajeux says that the wine list is being completely overhauled, and that he is still in the process of re-training the folks who stayed on from La Côte Brasserie. It's been open a little more than a week at this point, but judging from my one meal at the Bistrot, things seem to be running fairly smoothly.
René Bistrot is open from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for breakfast and lunch, and from 6:30 to 10 p.m. (9 on Sunday) for dinner. You can call (504) 613-2350 to make a reservation.