The Grill Room Returns

My first meal at the Windsor Court’s Grill Room was during the tenure of Kevin Graham. I can’t recall the precise details, and I wasn’t in the habit of committing my meals to writing at the time, but I do remember being impressed by the meal. Graham was inventive, but the food was grounded by classic technique and attention to detail.

Over the years since that meal, I’ve dined in the Grill Room on a number of occasions. Most of the meals were excellent; some were mediocre. For a time after Katrina, there was a period of flux during which the Grill Room was seemingly deemed not as important to the hotel’s overall operations as it had once been. It wasn’t that the chefs who took the helm in the kitchen were lacking but rather that the hotel simply didn’t want to devote the resources to make it a top-flight dining room.

That changed with the hiring of Drew Dzejak toward the end of 2008. I had a chance to sample Dzejak’s food shortly after he came on board, and I was impressed. The layout of the menu has changed since my meal, but Dzejak’s approach has not.

The chef is a native of Florida and prior to the Grill Room spent much of his professional life in Charleston, S.C. His cuisine is influenced but not limited by his Southern roots. Although his cooking is described as “modern American” on the hotel’s Web site, it’s really more international than that implies. That’s fitting for a restaurant with aspirations to be the best in the city, and the ingredients the restaurant imports are similarly ambitious.

The first appetizer on the current dinner menu is 30 grams of Black River Ossetra Malossol caviar, and although the rest of the menu isn’t as exotic or expensive, it sets a tone. Local ingredients are employed where possible, but the restaurant does not apologize for sourcing foie gras from the Hudson valley, diver scallops from Maine or wild striped bass from North Carolina.

The Grill Room is located on the second floor –– really the mezzanine –– of the hotel. One enters through the Polo Club Lounge, which with its leather chairs and mahogany bar sets the stage for what is arguably the most elegant dining space in New Orleans. The art on the walls, the flowers arranged throughout the room and the white tablecloths are all designed to provide an air of sumptuousness. The service, which suffered greatly for a time, is back up to snuff. The folks who served me at a recent meal were attentive but unobtrusive. When I had a few questions about elements of my meal that were not addressed in the descriptions in the menu, my waitress was readily able to answer them.

The lunch menu is a pared-down version of what’s available at dinner, but it’s hardly sparse. I started with tuna sashimi, which the menu described as accompanied by edamame, toasted sesame seeds and soy caramel. Thin but generously portioned slices of tuna were draped over lightly salted soybeans that were in turn set atop a very light puree of onions mixed with a basil aioli. The soy caramel –– a little sweet and a little tart –– was painted on one side of the dish, and a ribbon of olive oil occupied the other. A julienne of radish and micro-greens topped the fish. I tend to overthink food, I guess, and maybe that’s what made this dish so remarkable for me. The purée looked remarkably like wasabi, and I was really expecting some heat, so I was surprised when it turned out to be slightly sweet and herbacious. The edamame had been seasoned with flakes of salt that popped in my mouth, and the combination of the slightly sweet soy caramel and the fruity olive oil were perfect foils for the richness of the tuna. The radish added a nice textural contrast and reminded me of the grated daikon that often accompanies sashimi at better Japanese restaurants.

My second course was seared Florida grouper over a butternut squash risotto with a brown butter vinaigrette. The fish was a large fillet cooked just a touch past my preference but seasoned well. The risotto featured a brunoise of the squash and pine nuts, and the dish was finished with what I would have called a beurre blanc that was acidic enough to counter the richness of the fish. I particularly liked the risotto. The squash retained a good bit of texture, and it was a good bit lighter than I expected. (Certainly lighter than the last risotto I made.)

The dinner menu is, as suggested above, more extensive than what’s available at lunch. In addition to the à la carte options, there’s a six- course tasting menu for $85 that can be paired with wines for an additional $65. You can see both lunch and dinner menus at the restaurant’s Web site, and the dinner and tasting menus appear to be updated frequently.

I will say this about the Web site. It is very pretty to look at, but I will be damned if I can figure out why in 2011 anyone would include an embedded music file in a Web site. Additionally, and your mileage may vary, it appears to crash my browser. These things seriously piss me off, but that’s a rant for another day, I suppose, and it has nothing to do with the restaurant.

The restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you can call 504/522-1992 to make a reservation or for more information.

On another note, through the end of January, Langenstein’s is sponsoring a contest it’s calling Blog Wars. Four local food blogs are participating: I Heart Nola, Blackened Out, Nola Eats and Cajun Boy. The winning recipe will be featured at both locations of the grocery, and 25 percent of the proceeds will be donated to Second Harvest Food Bank. Check out the Web site to see the recipes and vote for your favorite.

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