Something new; something changed
It is hard to get a handle on R’evolution, the opulent temple of cuisine in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. It received more coverage before opening than most restaurants receive when they’re actually open. The collusion of two big-name chefs – John Folse and Rick Tramonto – along with an eye-popping build-out made it a juicy lure for food writers nationwide. Its extravagance is out of step with today’s economic reality, yet this is contrasted with its demonstrated efforts to be of service to the community (in particular, bringing home people displaced from Hurricane Katrina to help staff up). Big moves like these send signals that R’evolution is more than a restaurant. It is a statement. But what is it saying?
“Chefs don’t often have an opportunity like this, this sort of carte blanche,” Folse explains. “Rick (Tramonto) and I wanted a restaurant that wasn’t about celebrity chefs but about our collective vision.” For Folse and Tramonto, that boiled down to the “Seven Nations” concept: Native American, French, Spanish, English, African, German and Italian cultures all played a role in the evolution of our city’s food. To illustrate this, Folse breaks down his venison carpaccio. “It is Native American because they cured wild game. To enhance that we put a tuille on the plate that looks like a piece of birch bark because that says ‘outdoors.’ Espresso dusting on the exterior is Italian and the chocolate shavings garnish is Spanish. This is the way we want our cooks to think about food. Everything is on the plate for a reason.” This is the wellspring of R’evolution’s inspiration and is also reflected in its décor. In the Seven Nations dining room, a wrap-around mural depicts defining cultural moments for each.
Of course, one chef’s Seven Nations concept is another’s creative license. I am guessing one concept can serve dual purposes, because that’s the real beauty and potential of R’evolution: two chefs in the kitchen who have nothing to prove, given free rein. Any single page ripped at random from its wide-ranging menu would be enough around which to build a four-star restaurant. And while many price points may jar with the times, you don’t come here to save money. Beautiful charcuterie boards, a caviar menu, Italian offerings ranging from earthy stewed tripe to an ephemeral sheep ricotta gnocchi scented with vanilla and lobster roe, as well as a steak selection extensive enough for a stand-alone steakhouse, with accompaniments such as foie gras butter and lobster béarnaise sauce are all on offer here. There truly is nothing else like this in town. And that’s the gift of the chefs’ collaborative vision.
When Tramonto first told his colleagues in Chicago he was heading south to work with Folse, the reaction was mixed at best. “You are going where?
Are you gonna make ‘Gumbo Spuma?’” Tramonto recalls. “But I think having two guys, one who grew up here and one who hasn’t, that’s the synergy here.”
Folse agrees. “We are so much better off here together because it allows me to take these historical, iconic dishes and show them to Rick and ask, ‘what can we do that has not already been done?’ And I know he will come up with something that will be respectful. But,” Folse adds, “He’ll still need my bittersweet plantation Creole cream cheese to do it.”
At the other end of the French Quarter, Scott Boswell’s Stella! has been reinventing itself. In July it underwent sweeping changes to its menu. Asked about the motivation for this, Boswell had this to say: “I was no longer excited about the food we were plating up. And I knew it was only a matter of time before it trickled down. We had a big meeting, and I told them how I felt. I said, ‘I want you to think about our food from a new perspective.
You guys are younger, have younger vision and different ideas. We have the greatest sommelier on the team ever, so let’s put this all together and come up with something that will blow people away.”
What the team came up with was a format featuring a choice of two prix fixe menus – four-course and seven-course tasting versions – each offered with its own wine pairing. Gone is the à la carte menu, along with its hyper-verbose prose. And, like the succinct wordings of the new menus, the food is sharp, focused and skillfully executed. The four-course prix fixe menu is flexible, each course having a choice of three options (the dessert course offers four, including a cheese plate). “We have foie on the first two courses and a whole lobster on the third, a tasting of coconut dessert and an amuse bouche, all for $85. I think that’s as good a value as you can get at this level,” Boswell says.
One of the recent course choices – a rectangle of foie gras atop brioche – shows the talent of chef de cuisine Anthony Gray. The silky foie gras is sparingly studded with pistachio and fig and laced with Sauternes for a touch of sweetness. “He’s been with me over two years now and has worked his way up,” Boswell says. “He is doing a great job weaving in the techniques he’s learned here.” Earthier options, like a hazelnut-finished trotter, take diners in an unfamiliar direction for Stella!, though Boswell still features some legacy dishes, such as his chili prawns, to provide a comfort zone for regulars. “They’d kill me if I took that off,” Boswell says.
The Kobe-style beef is visually arresting, with several slices of rare ribeye atop a smoldering charcoal brazier. It is flanked by spoons, each containing cubes of compressed melon. An assortment of house-made kimchee, including a novel version featuring cubed apples, rounds out the dish.
In other luxury dining news, Kristin Butterworth recently took over the helm at the Windsor Court Hotel’s Grill Room. An up-and-coming young chef who has already worked at some highly regarded properties, including the famous Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, this move should put some shake in the step of this blue-blood property. If you’re looking to treat yourself to something special, now is a good time to pull the trigger on high-flying dining.