Chef John Harris opened Lilette in 2001. He had previously worked at Bayona and as executive chef at Gautreau’s, with a break in between for an apprenticeship in France. He’s received numerous honors locally and was recently nominated for a James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef, South.
Lilette is a bistro in décor, with the brick-red walls, tile floor and pressed- tin ceiling that are typical of the species. The menu has some French touches: escargot in butter, parsley and garlic; steamed mussels with red wine, onions, thyme, cream and a black olive bruschetta; bouillabaisse chock-full of seafood; and roasted poulet breast with brussels sprouts, balsamic glazed onions and a mushroom vinaigrette.
Also in the French style are raw oysters served with a mignonette in place of the local cocktail sauce, and the oysters are not from the Gulf. Harris sources his bivalves from a number of locations; when I last ate lunch at Lilette, the half-dozen oysters were split between Alaskan and Beausoleil. I’m a huge fan of our local oysters, but now and again it’s good to sample what other parts of the continent can provide. The Alaskan oysters were sweet and medium-size, and the Beausoleil were small and briny.
Harris is also fond of sourcing other seafood from far afield. Alaskan king crab claws show up in a lunch entree of angel hair pasta and littleneck clams, flavored with garlic, chile flakes and oregano. The king crab claws are also incorporated into the bouillabaisse, along with lobster, scallop, cod, mussels and shrimp.
Harris’ cuisine also includes dishes that span the Mediterranean. Both the eggplant crisps with skordalia, tomatoes, basil and oil-cured olives and the sizzling shrimp with lemon and oregano are Greek in spirit. And the potato gnocchi with sage brown butter and Parmesan cream and the antipasta plate with burrata, coppa, salami Toscana, grape tomatoes and bruschetta are Italian in origin.
Some of the best dishes on the menu admit to no specific geographic origin. “Sticky-sweet” beef short ribs with hearts of palm, cucumber and lime-ginger vinaigrette have an Asian influence, I suppose, but fried Kurobuta pork belly with a salad of melon, sweet onion, cucumber, pea shoots and herbs is sui generis.
What I particularly like about Lilette, and the reason I’ve been a frequent visitor over the past few years, is Harris’ fairly light touch with most dishes. There’s a seared hanger steak on the lunch menu, but it’s served with a salad of tomato, feta, mint, arugula and pickled onion relish. My last meal included a piece of perfectly grilled black drum topped with a disk of black olive butter that slowly melted while I ate, and haricots verts, grape tomatoes and leeks. The fish is a special that changes frequently at Lilette; along with the oysters and a dessert, the fish of the day is listed on chalkboards placed in strategic locations in the dining room.
Harris receives some criticism for the unchanging nature of his menu. I understand that complaint, but when you have a menu as beloved by regulars as Lilette’s, you make changes at your peril. And the fact that the restaurant is routinely full of diners is no incentive for Harris to shake things up too much.
The dining room can get loud when the restaurant is full, but generally speaking, the crowd at Lilette will not remind you of Galatoire’s. I understand the restaurant has a reputation for catering to “ladies who lunch,” but as mentioned above, I’m a frequent patron, and that seems vaguely insulting –– at least to me. I’m no lady. (I’m no gentleman, either, but that’s another issue.) Although it will not likely remain appealing once the weather truly heats up, there are tables on a small porch and behind the fence that runs along the side of the restaurant for dining al fresco. If that is your pleasure, my advice would be to take advantage soon.
The bar turns out a few excellent specialty cocktails, some of which include the French aperitif Lillet; the Lilette Rouge combines the red variety of Lillet with champagne and muddled lime and orange. The Antonine includes Old New Orleans Crystal Rum, Lillet blanc, fresh lemon juice, lemon bitters and tonic. The Passionfruit Bellini substitutes a puree of the tropical fruit for peach in the classic champagne cocktail. There are a number of excellent wines by the glass, also listed on the chalkboards, and the wine list is very good generally as far as I can tell, though I am admittedly not a rock star where wine is concerned.
Service is very good, probably because the staff does not seem to turn over very much. Even when the restaurant is busy, you’ll be given the appropriate attention. Another benefit of a consistent menu is that the folks serving you are extremely familiar with its ins and outs. This is generally not a place where a question about a dish results in the response, “I’ll have to check with the chef.”
Lilette is located at 3637 Magazine St., and you can contact them at 504- 895-1636 for reservations. The restaurant is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.