Thursday, October 14. The Sazerac Comes Back. In the early years of my reporting on the dining scene, in the 1970s, three restaurants competed for customers who liked formal, ceremonious service. All had maitres d'hotel well versed in fine points of service, and with personalities that dominated the room. They were dressed to not only the nines but the nineteens, as were the waiters. The chefs were European, but had much lower profiles than the man at the front door had. The tables were set with a complete array of china and silverware, including seldom-seen pieces as sauce spoons, fish forks and fish knives, and two kinds of soup spoons. Much service was performed on gueridons at the side of the table; many of the activities thereupon were accompanied by flames.
As you might imagine, these were the most expensive restaurants in town. They were rarely the very best, but they came close.
The three grandiose restaurants of the 1970s were Louis XVI, Maison Pierre, and The Sazerac. They would be joined in their ambitiousness by the flagship restaurants in the big new hotels that opened in the early 1980s. Uh-oh: none of those new ones lasted except the Windsor Court Grill Room. And then the old ones started to close. Maison Pierre was three restaurants ago in the space now occupied by Bayona. Louis XVI did not return to a la carte service after Katrina (although it still serves its hotel as a banquet facility).
This left only The Sazerac. Which barely made it to the present day. In the 1990s, it was renovated into a much less formal restaurant with ordinary hotel food. Like the Fairmont Hotel in which it operated, it was dormant for four years following Katrina. The reopening of the hotel under its old name The Roosevelt included a re-conceived Sazerac.
There has never been another restaurant in New Orleans like The Sazerac in its glory years. Its service was orchestrated by Tommy Andrade. (He's now the owner of Tommy's, on Tchoupitoulas Street.) Nobody could top Tommy for showy service. Arrayed in a suit so rococo that it was almost a costume, he accorded every dish some kind of final touch at the table. Not even a bowl of soup could be served without his bringing it to a simmer in a pan over a tableside stove. In mid-meal, a sorbet came out on the back of an ice swan sitting on a pillow with a light inside to shine through the ice. There were dozens of other such touches.
At its best, The Sazerac was delicious, too. It invented what is now called the Reveillon, staging a magnificent Christmas-season menu with a different theme each year. Nobody with a taste for grand dining missed the Christmas dinner at The Sazerac. A lot of people had that dinner several times each season.
And then it all stopped. Tommy moved on, the menu was dumbed down, casualness took over.
I loved the old Sazerac. I was intrigued by its reopening in the Roosevelt, but I didn't have high hopes. Formal dining--certainly in the old style of service--is all but dead in New Orleans. One night, while Mary Ann and I were having dinner next door at John Besh's Domenica, I walked over to see what was going on at the Sazerac. The answer was, literally, nothing. It was closed that evening. Open only three nights a week. This did not bode well.
But here it was, a Thursday night, and I thought I'd give the place a try. It's been open plenty long enough to have things figured out.
But not long enough to have attracted a crowd, apparently. The Sazerac bar--really, a separate operation--was quite full. But only two tables were occupied in the dining room. At one was a bunch of guys who looked like they were in town on business. The other hosted a couple. He was wearing shorts, sneakers, and a golf shirt. Tommy wouldn't have allowed someone dressed like that to so much as take a peek inside the heavy velvet curtain at The Sazerac's door.
The hostess this night was as relaxed as if she were fronting a neighborhood café. The waiter approached in a similarly chummy mien, but he made it clear right away that he knew the food and the wine. And that was saying something, because here was an advanced, appealing menu. He pointed out the tasting menu as a good strategy but--did I hear him right? Fifty-six dollars for six courses?
He left me to think about that while he fetched me a Ramos gin fizz. Although the Sazerac cocktail is of course the house specialty, the Roosevelt is equally famous for this drink, made with gin, lime juice, egg whites, cream, orange flower water, and club soda--shaken, and vigorously. It's fluffy. It's also, despite its fame, a drink that almost nobody makes well anymore.
This one was made well. Very well. Wonderfully mellow and frothy and balanced. The best I've had in at least twenty years, during most of which I've avoided the drink because it was always so bad.
This put me in an optimistic mood. I'd get the tasting menu, of course. First came a demitasse of a creamy soup whose ingredients I've forgotten, but I do remember liking it. Along with it came a basket of very good and varied breads and soft butter.
Next, an oblong plate of crisscrossed asparagus, all coated with a thick mayonnaise that held to the spears substantial flakes of crabmeat. The flavor affinities in all this held the dish together, and it was much better than it sounds or looked. Excellent, in fact.
Now here were a couple of big shrimp on top of corn mixed with peppers and caramelized onions. The corn became sort of a sauce, and again the blend of flavors and textures was exactly right. And then came a wedge of halibut, seared to crusty on one edge, set atop a sweet potato risotto in a puddle of beet puree. Fantastic! My excitement rose. I love nothing more than finding a great restaurant that nobody's thinking about, and here I was in one.
I didn't know how they would handle a sirloin strip steak in a tasting-portion way, but they figured it out. Three thick slices across a steak cooked in one piece, wet down with a light demi with more than a hint of black pepper. I've been trying to figure out how to continue eating sirloin strips--my favorite cut of beef--without having to see my appetite flag before they're all gone. Here was the way.
The waiter strongly urged upon me an intense chocolate mousse-like cake in a chocolate cup. This sort of thing is too intense for me, but the man had given such good advice so far that I succumbed. The Marys would have adored this; I thought it was pretty good.
Espresso, made just right. They know what they're doing here, even though they don't have Tommy Andrade's style. Nor is anything being prepared at the table. But that kind of restaurant registers as pretentious except among a few old farts like me. And they've already got us. That classic version of The Sazerac is gone forever.
But long live this new one! What a pleasant surprise!
And was this really just $56? Yes!
The Sazerac. CBD: 123 Baronne, Roosevelt Hotel. 504-648-1200.
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