IT WAS DARK WHEN MY CAB PULLED INTO the enclosed, high-walled, red-tiled courtyard of the Windsor Court Hotel. Each stay at my favorite hotel in New Orleans is a special occasion, but tonight promised something extraordinary. Just one night before, a new executive chef from England had arrived. Advance word had him pegged as the most talented chef ever to come to the Crescent City, and I intended to find out if his food lived up to his reputation.
In less time than it took to pay the driver, I was passed from white-jacketed bellhop to manager to registration to porter, up the gleaming brass elevator, down wide dusky-rose corridors, to a large two-roomed affair overlooking twinkling lights along the Mississippi riverbank and bridge. Just booking a room in this world-renowned hotel in New Orleans’ Central Business District spurs an unusual feeling of enhanced affluence. More than 80 percent of the accommodations on its 23 floors are luxury suites; the staff-to-guest ratio rivals Buckingham Palace; and Windsor Court has raised the standards of service, quality, and dining in a city already famed for hospitality. An unabashed snob, I like to find my mindset complemented by the discernment of fellow guests, including Lady Thatcher, Naomi Campbell, Paul McCartney, and President George W. Bush.
Bathed and changed, I made my way to the Polo Bar, which provides a perfectly British-clubby rendezvous. Then it was across the hall to the pleasures of the Grill Room, where chef Jonathan Wright would be put to the test.
The Windsor’s new executive chef earned his reputation in England for introducing innovations in modern French haute cuisine to a milieu crowded with similarly creative minds. So impressive, he was awarded three rosettes within nine months of opening his own restaurant, La Gousse D’Ail, in Oxford. So experienced, he ran the kitchens of the legendary Raymond “Fumé” Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons (one of the very few Michelin two-star hotel/restaurants in Britain), as well as Raffles in Singapore.
Without a doubt, this is the first time a chef of Wright’s caliber has impacted New Orleans. And, from everything we experienced, he already appears well on his way to stirring up yet another colonial takeover (thankfully gastronomic) of the city.
To experience as much as possible, we chose the chef’s tasting menu. Wright favors melding classic standards with unusual contrasts of flavor and texture. In an incredible terrine bouillabaisse of cleanly fresh saffron water vinaigrette with local fish and shrimp and threads of tomato oil, Wright established a trademark re-rendering of a classic while honoring local produce and French heritage. A wonderful boned and roasted Mississippi quail was precisely balanced by the sweetness of seared mission figs and the creamy acidity of a light California chèvre—all of which contrasted divinely with pieces of spiced pecans in a pomegranate vinaigrette. Next, pink slices of seared veal rib-eye covered a large round of almost quenelle-textured chanterelle mushroom and veal sausage, where a surrounding reduction of carrot and sage offered a perfect zephyr of vegetable garden freshness.
In everything sampled, we found only one aspect of Wright’s inventiveness that I will never be able to describe fully because it has to be experienced to be understood. In a word, it is alchemy.
There are other (and newer) hotels, such as the Ritz Carlton, Maison Orleans, and the very contemporary Loft 523, with its allure for a younger, louder, and later crowd. But for me, the Windsor Court presents a much more intimate and superior knowledge of the city.
During my short stay, I managed opening day with friends at the races. I strolled the Crescent City Farmers Market, art galleries, and museums of the Warehouse Arts District and wandered magnificent shaded streets of Victorian furbelows. I also thoroughly enjoyed an evening of unexpected quality on Bourbon Street. The Fleur de Lis Theatre, a literal floor above the somewhat tawdry and tired hullabaloo of the street below, presented La Revue, a wonderfully impish choreographed cabaret worthy of the casinos of Biarritz or Monte Carlo. My irresponsible friends even took me to an old bordello—the Sporting House Cafe—now operated much more respectfully as a family lunch place, where bawdy is a pun on the menu.
But what I really appreciated about Windsor Court was the further direction from the concierge to other restaurants that have evolved from the Grill Room’s early influence. For example, we enjoyed a delightfully paced lunch at Restaurant August, where John Besh, an earlier sous chef at Windsor Court, brings to the table wonderful things in appropriately small packages. A lightly glazed and seared fresh sea scallop was wrapped in a single strand of chive and surrounded by a deep, dark-red swirl of lobster reduction and a pale-green edging of chive oil. Very Euro-Japanese in a Cajun French sort of way. Besh paid homage to early training in France with Alain Assaud’s soupe de poisson—the smooth bouillabaisse and rouille were Marseille in a cup. As an entrée, the pan-fried speckled trout in a mustard butter sauce saw the last of a refreshing Chablis from a well-chosen cellar of some 1,200 wines. Were it not for the excellent advice of one of the many vested waiters, we would have missed the surprisingly airy conclusion of Brendan’s bread pudding, served on a translucent amber sauce with a small dollop of fragrant Irish whiskey ice cream.
Windsor Court progeny are not the only wealth of culinary talent to be uncovered. Susan Spicer at Bayona, Anne Kearney at Peristyle, and Cynthia Vu-Tran of Lemon Grass join with Joy Jessup, the Grill Room’s wonderful pastry chef, in restoring this city’s reputation for original and exuberant cuisine.
Tran’s Lemon Grass afforded us a splendid pre-show supper of French Vietnamese inventiveness in feng-shui-protected calm. Panko-walnut-sesame-crusted oysters baked on beds of wasabi and leek confit were followed by Prince Edward mussels in a lightly seasoned cream stock of curry and coconut and pan-sautéed white flesh of locally caught puppy drum with garlic roast bok choy on a bed of firm silvery glass noodles. Then, with only minutes till curtain time, we relished deliciously pink lamb rib chops on a bed of cassava and wilted spinach with a plum demi-glace. A couple of bottles of Chateau Souverain made light of a short walk through the surprisingly chilly New Orleans streets.
After three days and nights of splendid excess, I finally pulled myself back to Dallas. Much of the “new” in New Orleans will have to wait until another time. Until then, I will survive on the truth behind the Monty Python parody of Justin, a Grill Room head waiter who, offering me one of Joy Jessup’s ethereal desserts, tempted in perfect mock French, “Just one more wafer-thin slice!”
Robert Fox is a former hotel and restaurant critic for Egon Ronay in the United Kingdom.
JUST THE FACTS
HOW TO GET THERE
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines fly daily nonstop to New Orleans. For reservations on American, call 800-433-7300 or visit www.aa.com. For reservations on Southwest, call 800-435-9792 or visit www.iflyswa.com.
WHERE TO STAY
523 Gravier St. 504-200-6523
904 Rue Iberville. 504-670-2900
921 Canal St. 504-524-1331
Windsor Court Hotel
300 Gravier St. 504-523-6000
WHERE TO DINE
Bayona (American, Creole, French)
430 Dauphine St. 504-525-4455
Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel
300 Gravier St. 504-522-1992
Lemon Grass (Contemporary French Colonial)
217 Camp St. 504-523-1200
Peristyle (Creole, French)
1041 Dumaine St. 504-593-9535
Restaurant August (Creole, French)
301 Tchoupitoulas St. 504-299-9777
Sporting House Cafe (Storyville-themed downtown lunch spot)
916 Lafayette St. 504-561-0605
WHAT TO DO
1100 Tulane Ave. 504-587-3737
Crescent City Farmers Market
700 Magazine St. @ Girod St. Open Saturdays, 8 a.m.-noon. 3700 Orleans Ave. Open Thursdays, 4-7 p.m.
200 Broadway @ Uptown Square parking lot. Open Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Fleur de Lis Theatre (La Revue)
317 Bourbon St. 504-529-7469
Warehouse Arts District
Located between the French Quarter/Garden and Central Business districts.