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The gilded age

Back in the day, several top restaurants in New Orleans were the prominently featured crown jewels of sumptuous downtown hotels; places I tend to recollect within the context of special occasions as a child – the old Fairmont at Christmas, for example when the lobby was decked out with seasonal displays. Now with the resurrection of the Fairmont as the Roosevelt, encasing the latest effort by Chef John Besh, I decided to stick my head in a few other signature hotel destinations around town.

Mélange at the Ritz-Carlton has shifted its focus away from an earlier concept menu that was driven by recreations of signature dishes from various local restaurants. While these offerings were well-executed, their overriding footprint on the menu left little room for Executive Chef Matt Murphy to showcase his own chops. This new menu is therefore liberating, allowing him full range of expression.

For appetizers, starting with the Crab “Dans Trois” allows one to sample our local blue crabs in cake, Imperial and Napoleon form. Of the three, the Imperial was my favorite, with its subtly spicy dressing. Among other appetizers is a nice Duck Confit, featuring warm shreds of tender duck embedded within a large baby mixed green salad. Thin slices of rainbow radish dressed up the presentation.

For main courses, the Smoked Beef Tenderloin Filet is up-sized with a generous serving of lump crabmeat and Béarnaise sauce. The smokiness comes from a quick stint in a covered pan with smoldering hickory chips. This imparts real smoke flavor while allowing diners to still specify their preferred degree of doneness; the technique works well. Another dish of Blackened Redfish separates itself from the crowd with the inclusion of crabmeat studded Risotto tinged with saffron. Desserts include a tasty Passion Fruit Crème Brulee, whose essential tartness is offset with a sweet chutney of tropical fruits.

Adjacent to the Davenport Lounge, if you dine at the right time you can enjoy Jeremy Davenport’s music and banter while you also enjoy the food. The best tables are the semi-private booths against the far wall, a few of which offer a direct line-of-sight through to the lounge. At press time, Mélange was also offering an excellent “Deflation Menu,” serving up a three course dinner for $29.

[Ed. note: At the time of this writing, Matt Murphy was admitted to Ochsner suffering from a life-threatening illness. The New Orleans Culinary Community has been rallying about him with support and prayers for his recovery.]

The Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel. The Windsor Court has sought to reestablish its eminence for years now with a number of different chefs, none of which have really met with much success. Until now. A recent shakeup at top levels of management brought in new General Manager David Teich, whose background in food and beverage dovetailed nicely with his desire to revive the Windsor Court’s languishing flagship restaurant. The result is the return of The Grill Room.

Mr. Teich brought with him from Charleston Place Executive Chef Drew Dzejak who overhauled the menu. The result is a non-traditional matrix of choices; essentially four parallel mini-menus, each with its own theme. The profiles are “Southern,” “Unadulterated,” “Steakhouse” and “Indulge,” and each offers two appetizers and two main courses, along with a side. Guests can pick and choose however they wish; for example, the Crudo of Yellow Fin Tuna from “Indulge” might pair well with the Halibut off “Unadulterated.” In arranging the menu this way The Grill Room hedges its bets: It can accommodate the high-end business traveler with the tried-and-true, while at the same time offering Chef Dzejak a lot of rein to populate the other menu slots with more creative fare.

Off the “Southern” Side, the real surprise with the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake was in the Tomato Bacon Vinaigrette – really more of a bacon-infused tomato reduction with real depth of flavor. Off the “Indulge” side, an appetizer of Grilled Foie Gras and Lobster came drizzled with sweet sherry and honey vinaigrette. The foie gras serving was modest but tasty, seared on a grill and served near its unctuous melting point.

For entrées, a Filet Mignon Duo off “Indulge” got embellishment from a cube of tender braised beef short rib and mashed potatoes supercharged with foie gras. By contrast, the Halibut off “Unadulterated” was an exercise in understatement, letting a portion of the cold-water flatfish cooked to opaque perfection speak for itself, supplemented only by the inclusion of some tiny rock shrimp whose sweet flavor was sharpened with a white balsamic vinaigrette.

Time will tell if this latest iteration of the Windsor Court’s flagship restaurant takes root, but given the scale of the transformation and the vertically stacked turnover of management, it is no exaggeration to say that a new day has dawned at the Windsor Court.

Le Meritage at the Maison Dupuy. While the driving concept behind Le Meritage is wine, the food hasn’t been left behind. In a slightly more complex iteration of the matrix-style menu employed at Windsor Court, Le Meritage’s menu is built around small blocks of dishes in groups of three, with a complementing selection of three wine options. For example, the “Sparklers” section pairs a choice of Fried Oysters with citrus-zest spiked horseradish, Crabcake, or Smoked Salmon Napoleon with a choice of three champagnes and sparkling wines. The wines are available by the half- and full-pour, and all dishes are offered in small and large portions.

Sound complicated? It is and it isn’t. The main thing to remember is just to have fun. While the layout of the menu was initially distracting, the first thing I noticed when my Duck Two Ways arrived at the table was that here was a wine-centered concept that hasn’t lost sight of the food.

Presentation is top-notch, with slices of rare duck breast topped with fig compote, a seared cut of foie gras atop a warm puck of duck confit, and some seared fingerling potatoes to round it out. Keep in mind this was the “small” selection, and the attention to detail in plating was commendable. The follow-through on this was consistent throughout the meal. The Rabbit Tenderloin came with tagliatelle pasta made in-house, and the Gulf Shrimp and Grits was accompanied by smoky Tasso ham and red eye gravy. The 2006 Graffigna Argentine Malbec was a sturdy complement to the pair of Lamb Chops served with sweet potato, apple and bacon hash.

The downside to Le Meritage is the high prices. Coupled with the unfamiliar mix-and-match ordering, the result can be some fuzzy math for those trying to mentally keep track (like the “Tapas Effect,” only compounded). Valet parking at the Maison Dupuy is complimentary, however – a plus.

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