When I started writing about food and restaurants, John Besh had only one restaurant. I still consider August his best, but in the years since he opened his Tchoupitoulas Street flagship he's opened seven others in New Orleans, including his latest – Borgne.
Named after the body of water to the east of New Orleans, seafood is the specialty at Borgne, a fact that is readily apparent when you see the large column covered in oyster shells that stands near the entrance. It's a large restaurant, clearly designed to take advantage of conventioneers and tourists staying at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, in which it is housed. But if that makes it sound like a cash-in, it's not. It's not as elegant as August, but the meals I've had at Borgne have been consistently good, even if a few of the dishes seemed a little cute.
Besh chose Brian Landry to be the executive chef at Borgne. Landry is a New Orleans native who was most recently executive chef at Galatoire's and Galatoire's Bistro in Baton Rouge, and it's nice to see him in a venue where he can more readily express his creativity. I enjoyed Landry's food at the Baton Rouge location of the venerable restaurant, but that location is in the process of relocating, and Landry's attempts to broaden the menu at the Bourbon Street restaurant never seemed to catch on.
Whether you like the décor at Borgne is a question of taste. I'm enamored of the wave-like texture in the long wall behind the bar, and the lack of tablecloths doesn't bother me any more than the use of tea towels for napkins. I expect good service at any Besh restaurant, and I haven't been disappointed yet. General Manager John Melnyk III has been with Besh for a while, and so far as I can tell he's running a pretty tight ship.
The menu, as suggested above, is heavy on seafood. Of the 10 starters, only two don't have oysters, crab or shrimp as main ingredients. Of those two, the suckling pig empanadas were very good, though on one occasion the filling was a little dry. The horseradish-spiked “white barbecue” sauce that comes with the meat pies was enough to cover that flaw, and the crust was delicious both times I've had the dish.
The shrimp toast risoles were also good, though not what I expected. The menu advertises them as coming with a sambal dressing, and I guess I assumed the dressing would be a sort of sweet-and-spicy glaze. Instead the fried balls stuffed with shrimp are placed atop a creamy, slightly spicy sauce and garnished with baby greens.
The entrées I've sampled include grilled gulf pompano with garlic, tomatoes, hazelnuts and olive oil. Pompano is a great local fish, and ordinarily I like it prepared as simply as possible. At Borgne, Landry tops the grilled fillet with tomatoes, croutons and nuts. When I saw the dish, I was worried the fish would be overpowered, but the whole thing came together perfectly. The fillet was cooked through but not dry, the slightly tart sauce was a good balance to the richness of the fish and the nuts (though the menu said almonds) were a nice touch.
When I first dined at Borgne, I was there with a friend who, poor bastard, doesn't eat seafood. He had the garlic chicken paella with chorizo and saffron after the empanadas. The dish is not what you'd call a traditional paella, though the rice portion of the dish was true to the Spanish classic. The odd thing was that the chicken in the dish was mostly wings, and had been cooked in a hot sauce of a type you'd more expect from a sports bar. That said, my friend ended up eating the chicken down to the bones, and declared it very good.
There are also daily specials. On Tuesdays Borgne serves a milk-braised cochon de lait. The waiter I asked told me that the meat is not actually braised in milk, but rather Landry takes the pan-drippings and makes what my grandmother used to call milk gravy. The result is a pale tan sauce that's rich, deeply flavored, and delicious over rice. I will say that the rice at Borgne was my least favorite part of the meals I had there. It reminded me of the best instant rice I'd ever had, which is not something I'd call a compliment. Given the otherwise superb product I experienced at Borgne, I'm pretty sure the rice was an anomaly, and I'll definitely consider ordering the dish again, since the pork was tender and delicious.
The show-stopper on the menu is probably the fish in a bag. Landry takes local sheepshead and cooks it en papillote over caramelized onions and fennel, all flavored with crab fat. Crab fat, people. Think about that for a second. Yes, it's as good as it sounds. The dish comes to the table in the paper in which it's been cooked, and there's a release of steam when the waiter cuts it open in front of you. My wife ordered the dish when we ate recently, but it's definitely on my short list of things to try when I go back.
Borgne has only been open a few weeks, but it's already a place I'd happily take friends from out of town to get oysters and other local seafood. Given a few months to hit its stride, Borgne will be one of Besh's and New Orleans' better restaurants. Borgne is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., 7 days a week, and you can call (504) 613-3860 for more information or to make a reservation.
In other news, on Sunday, January 29, WYES is presenting the 10th annual Chocolate Sunday tasting at Harrah's Casino Theatre. True to the name, the event is mostly about chocolate, but savory dishes and drinks are available as well. There's a VIP event that kicks off at 2 p.m., and general admission starts at 3 p.m. The event ends at 5 p.m. VIP tickets cost $50 in advance; general admission is $35 in advance and $40 at the door. Groups of six or more or folks over 55 can purchase advance general admission tickets for $30. Check out WYES.org for more information and a listing of the participants.