On Jan. 15, Mélange, the restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton hotel on Canal Street, will be relaunched as M Bistro, and the new name is more than a simple change of appellation. Chef Matt Murphy is being given more freedom to cook his own cuisine and more freedom to source his ingredients from local producers.

After Katrina, the menu at Mélange was largely a mix of signature dishes found at other local restaurants. It was an odd choice for a restaurant in a high-end hotel –– and even more so for a space that was once home to Frank Brunacci, one of the most ambitious chefs this city has ever seen. Happily, the “best of New Orleans” menu will soon be a thing of the past.

Murphy has been cooking his own food at Mélange for a while, but he’s been limited in the products he could use by the hotel’s existing contracts with restaurant suppliers. The new operation gives him more leeway to select his own local vendors for produce, meat and fish. He’s been visiting farmers markets far and wide, going as far as Baton Rouge’s Red Stick Farmers Market to find local suppliers for as many products as he can. Any man who would brave Baton Rouge traffic for lettuce is …  insane, actually. Murphy is insane.

Of course Murphy recognizes that he can’t supply everything his restaurant needs by visiting farmers markets. He has a great story about finding some nice cherry tomatoes at a local market. “I’ll take that,” he told the vendor. “How much?” was the response. “All of it,” said Murphy, who continued, saying that the vendor was “almost annoyed” that he’d sold out so early in the day. Obviously a chef can’t rely on what’s available in the farmers markets to sustain his kitchen, so Murphy, like many other chefs, has tried to find local folks to supply him with products on a regular basis. 

I was invited to lunch recently by the hotel to check out a few items from the new menu at M Bistro, and local products were certainly in evidence. Des Allemands crabmeat was featured in a ball-shaped cake served over an “Acadian” sauce that had a hint of truffle oil. Pickled okra and mushrooms rounded out the dish. The crab cake was excellent, though the truffle oil could have been omitted.

Blackened redfish is almost a cliché, but there’s a reason it was so successful when it was first introduced. Murphy turned out a few perfectly seasoned and cooked pieces of farm-raised redfish served over a crabmeat risotto and some beautiful asparagus spears. Overcooking fish is an atrocity in my book, and blackening is a technique that runs that risk. Murphy, however, knows what he’s doing, and again, the fish was cooked to within an angel’s hair of perfection.

We also got to try Murphy’s sweet-glazed baby-back ribs over a corn-and-andouille dressing and a veal cheek cooked sous-vide for 17 hours and then served over a truffled (again) parsnip purée. I feel like a broken record with my complaints about truffle oil, but when it’s used in moderation, it can be OK. In Murphy’s hands, the oil didn’t overpower the dish. I still could have done without it, but that veal cheek was unbelievable, and the red wine-based sauce added some necessary acid to the dish.

The rib was tender, and the glaze was sweet without being cloying. The dressing had the same flavor components: sweetness from the corn and a slightly spicy meatiness from the andouille. The corn bread was a little dry but very tasty. A few such hiccups are understandable given that the entire menu is a work in flux.

The desserts they brought out were up to the level of the rest of the meal. There is a chocolate toffee pudding that’s a reminder that Murphy is an Irishman. It’s a sticky, rich block with a dense, moist crumb topped with chocolate and caramel sauces. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, and though I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, I didn’t stop eating it until they removed it. We were also given a dish of fresh fruit with a quenelle of vanilla cream and a couple of beignets dusted with powdered sugar that were better than just about any I’ve had in New Orleans. Fruit is more my speed to finish a meal, and the blackberries, strawberries and blueberries macerated in a little fruit purée were a great way to finish things up. 

Murphy is a friend, so I suppose you should take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I’m not the only one who thinks he’s a talented chef. I’m very happy that the restaurant is taking on even more of his character. It’s important for the Ritz to have a restaurant that matches its standards, and M Bistro looks to be that restaurant.

Call the restaurant at 524-1331 for reservations or to find out more about the new menu.