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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Friday, April 15, 2011

New Orleans Dining: John Besh's Restauarant August

Photos: Dinah Rogers, The Times-Picayune

Menu pretentiousness (theirs) and snickers (mine) aside,

the food was flawless in terms of both flavor and presentation,

so good that even the gushiest of adjectives would be insulting.

Sometimes I read or hear a funny line and can’t remember who said or wrote it. So with apologies to the person who coined it, when asked to define nouvelle cuisine, the joker said, “I just paid $94 for what?” That line popped out of my memory as I was walking out the door after a superlative lunch at John Besh’s flagship, Restaurant August.

I’m still trying to work through my feelings about Besh in general and August in particular. From watching Besh on television, I think he’d be a fun guy to be around, maybe sit on a counter with a glass of pinot noir, chatter about food and watch him work. He seems to be an extremely affable chap. His cookbook is terrific not only in content, but smartly organized by season as well. I’m sure he’s over it by now, but I still think the telegenic Besh was hosed in 2007 when he came in second to Michael Symon on Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef.

Besh is a local kid (from across Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell) who’s on the threshold of becoming a national celebrity. It seems there’s a three-step process in that business; someone is first a chef, then a celebrity chef and ultimately a celebrity. If that were true, I’d believe Besh to be at Step Two-and-a-Half. With a string of restaurants and his own network cooking shows on The Learning Channel and PBS, he may not be quite in the same room as Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen, Mario Batali and the like, but he’s at least rattling the doorknob.

The pure variety of his five New Orleans area restaurants is intriguing. Beyond August, he is the owner/executive chef of Lüke, which is a step up from the traditional hotel restaurant serving three meals a day; Besh Steak, a glitzy chophouse in Harrah’s New Orleans mega-casino; The American Sector, which serves tricked-up comfort foods (meatloaf, chicken-and-dumplings, hot dogs, etc,) in the National World War II Museum; and La Provence, the très romantic French country inn on the New Orleans North Shore, where some of Besh’s key formative years were spent as an apprentice.

One of the things I like about the talented, young-ish (he’s barely into his mid-40s) Besh is his devotion to local, Louisiana foods. In recent years, it seems every restaurant of any note talks about its preparation of bistro-style cooking featuring locally grown ingredients; hell, linguistic variations on that theme are downright clichéd. What separates Besh from the pack of espousers is the fact that much of the food he cooks and serves has been grown on his properties. He raises and butchers hogs on an acreage adjoining La Provence; a great deal of his produce is raised on a farm he owns near Lafayette, the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country. In short, John Besh is one of the few restaurateurs in New Orleans who actually walks the walk, and that’s really quite admirable in my book.

But don’t go getting the idea that this is a valentine to Besh.

As much as I truly admire the man, I can’t help but wonder how long he will be inexorably linked to New Orleans. He already has another Lüke outpost in San Antonio, and hosting two television series will ultimately have him spending less time in his kitchens. Yes, he has chefs de cuisine overseeing all of his kitchens, and I’m guessing the former Marine is a fairly uncompromising taskmaster, but it’s just not the same when you go to a headline chef restaurant only to discover that “the man” is preparing something other than your meal. It’s this phenomenon that stopped the legendary Paul Prudhomme’s globetrotting and brought him back closer to his kitchen, and it’s what has made Lagasse more of an occasional visitor than a true hometown culinary force. That’s not a knock on anybody, but an occupational hazard facing “superstar” chefs, and it would be sad for both local and visiting diners to see a talent like Besh to succumb it.

Of all the restaurants in the Besh empire, August is the most European urbane. Located on the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Gravier Streets, the restaurant is a visual knockout. You’ll enter a pocket bar, barely large enough to hold the few people who might be forced to wait until their reserved table is ready.

The chandeliered front room is high ceilinged and airy. There are the old exposed brick walls, which are so much a part of New Orleans architecture, and the walls on two sides are large windows that nearly reach the ceiling from roughly chair-rail height. Normally such windows are half-curtained “bistro” style, but for some reason Besh’s design team chose to leave them unadorned. While The Sensible One and I weren’t seated next to the windows, I think I would have found it disconcerting had we been. The fishbowl effect of passing pedestrians being able to look down at my dinner from two feet away is a sensation that strikes me as downright undesirable in a place as elegant as August.

In the center of the front room is a large stand of flowers next to what appeared to be an oversized ceramic terrine filled with champagne bottles. The tables are spaced pleasantly apart. For some reason, such an arrangement is particularly reassuring to me, saying the place is confident enough that it feels no need to wring a penny out of every square inch and to hell with the guests’ comfort. Rather, it is a conducive invitation to the lazy, extended kind of lunch one might associate with Galatoire’s or another of the old-line temples of Creole cuisine.

Behind the front room is an elegantly paneled jewel of a wine room, with its tables surrounded by wine racks tall enough to require stairs to a second-story catwalk. The room is darker and far more intimate than its counterpart, and could easily be considered one of the city’s most romantic rooms, in that small group that would include the secluded balcony at Arnaud’s, the upstairs wine pantry at Bayona, one of the postage stamp rooms at Irene’s Cuisine or near the lounge’s fireplace on a rainy night at Besh’s La Provence.

Facing no pressing duties the rest of the day, The Sensible One and I decided to do lunch in the classic, unflappable New Orleans style, her starting with an oaky Chardonnay, yours truly with a puckeringly crisp Boodles martini. Our waiter, once told we intended to be leisurely, stayed out of our way, but had an almost preternatural ability to return at the very second we wanted him, the sign of impeccable service.

Over our cocktails, The Sensible One and I perused our menus, and it was at this point where the place started to lose me. I had been told that both the food and drink at August could be considered pricey, perhaps not by Parisian or Midtown Manhattan standards but certainly nudging the stratosphere for New Orleans, so I was not overly surprised when the prices on the à la carte section left me slack-jawed.

To Besh’s and Augusts’ credit, however, everyday there is a price fixe menu offering a three-course lunch (appetizer, entrée, dessert) for the numeric designation of the year, in our case $20.11. Each course offers a choice of three selections, most of which lean toward cuisine nouvelle.

As sensible as a three course lunch for $20.11 may be, the printed menu is at once pretentious, off-putting, thoroughly affected and will send 99 out of 100 diners scurrying to their Food Lover’s Companion. In case you don’t believe me, look at the eight following terms used on the menu the day we were there and count the number you recognize (and tell the truth): ras el hanout, guanciale, mizuma, brandade de morue, persillade, soffrito, pana cotta, and onions (which I added at the end so everybody would score higher than zero). Such prepense, polyglot tohubuhu (Both of us can play these games, J.B.), particularly in the Deep South, can serve no other purpose than to either mean-spiritedly cow or more likely pander to the overblown egos of that second lowest form of life, the food snob.

Menu pretentiousness (theirs) and snickers (mine) aside, the food was flawless in terms of both flavor and presentation, so good that even the gushiest of adjectives would be insulting.

There was only one problem: Even though my days as an incorrigible trencherman are, alas, far behind me, I left hungry. (For the record, my three courses were, (1) pâté de campagne of La Provence pork, pickled wild mushrooms and seasonal marmalades; (2) branade de morue, ravioli nero, mint persillade and soffrito marmalade; and (3) buttermilk panna cotta, Ponchatoula strawberry comsommé and pistachios).

When the visibly small servings came to the table, I recalled many instances of being served main courses in four-inch ramekins and not being able to finish half of it due to the phenomenal richness of the food. This simply wasn’t the case at August. While it may be impossible to overstate the virtues of the kitchen’s wizardry, my food wasn’t ultra-rich to the point it became visually deceptive. To be blunt, I found the portions to be one inch on the good side of “chintzy,” although I quickly add that The Sensible One expressed no similar feelings about her lunch (pâté followed by veal grillades, finishing with custard).

With all due respect to the prodigious talents of Chef Besh and his adroit staff, I’m not certain that August rightfully belongs in a book that celebrates the more traditional and classic restaurants that most visitors associate with New Orleans. Some will no doubt argue that August is the superlative exemplar of a changing of the guard in the city’s kitchens, a group that would include Gautreau’s, Lilette and Stella(!) among others. While I wouldn’t disagree with such an assertion, nor would I hesitate to recommend it to the lovers of cuisine nouveau, I just don’t think there’s a historic or cultural fit between a style of cooking that’s trés au courant and a tradition-bound city that for the most part is anything but.

Would I visit Restaurant August again? Yes, emphatically. But if you see me there at dinner, you can guess I’ll be there as a grateful guest rather than as a prosperous host. And if you catch me there at lunch, you’d better believe I’ll have a snack tucked away in my pocket.

Restaurant August

Cuisine Nouveau

301 Tchoupitoulas (at Gravier) Street)

(Five blocks on foot from the junction of

St. Charles Avenue, Canal and Royal Streets)

Dinner served nightly, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Lunch served Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Reservations are absolutely essential

All major credit cards honored

Telephone: (504) 299-977

Website: www.restaurantaugust.com

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