Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Restaurant August is the youngest member of the Classic set. Compared to most of the places examined this year, August is a wee lad. The reason it deserved scrutiny is because no other chef/brand in New Orleans history, save maybe Emeril Lagasse, has expanded faster and farther than John Besh. Prudhomme's spice line and a Commander's outpost or two have certainly taken New Orleans' brands to distant lands, but Besh after Katrina was seemingly anywhere a microphone or camera was. TV shows, eight new restaurants, cookbooks, and a foundation followed. All of this took place in a roasting pan of rapidly expanding food media, Twitpics, and Instagrams, making Besh one of the most recognizable New Orleans chefs.
August's location across the street from The Windsor Court gives it access to well-heeled visitors with expense accounts and sophisticated tastes. The cuisine at August has always reminded me, in a good way, of watching the Great Chefs of the World series on PBS. Elegant, multi-component dishes which appear incredibly simple, yet impossible to recreate at home. Take for instance the amuse bouche which sets in front of a diner a hallowed out egg shell brimming with fish fumet, a truffled sabayon, a dollop of caviar, and a baton of brioche sticking out like flag planted on a newly discovered island.
Each time this amuse is delivered by one of the sharp backwaiters, I sigh and utter to myself, "this again." But by the time I am done scooping out the luscious thick mixture of pungent truffle and fish made solid, I consider ordering a half dozen of these. That and a bottle of Champagne from the well-studied list would make one hell of an indulgent list.
But alas, duty calls. The daily lunch menu (hurry only thirteen more days that it will be available for $20.12) offers a selection of three dishes each in one of three courses. I went the economical route; Lindsay decided she wanted to order off the regular menu, which can get pricey. My first course was a simple salad of pear, mizuna, blue cheese, and walnuts. The pears had been sliced thin and cooked, the heat coaxing out a rich sweetness which was a natural pairing for the sharp bite of blue cheese.
The second most famous dish in the Besh cannon is a bowl of gently ridged gnocchi united with crabmeat, truffle, and parmesan. The real value in this dish is the free drag of bread through the deeply flavored sauce. Again, you could make a whole meal out of a double order of this, but this time go with a white burgundy.
Porchetta, that rustic Italian roadside staple, receives a shower, shave, and Saville Row clothing allowance. The kitchen at august crusts the well-seasoned meat in panko and places it on a saddle of sturdy grits framed with tender sprouts and halved cherry tomatoes. Shrimp and grits removes the grits in favor of risotto and surrounds the dish with a rich shellfish stock, thin, floppy disks of gourd, and a pleasant spice.
I wish more attention was devoted to the wine by the glass program, but fine dining's number one rule is to make money on the extremities. A glass of rose which should have been bright and lively was dusty and flat, but one probably shouldn't be drinking at lunch. Desserts under the studied stewardship of Kelly Fields have veered into territory approaching avant garde in New Orleans. Witness a study in devil's food cake, which cast the flavors of chocolate into a galaxy of cherry asteroids, pistachio space debris, and coconut moons orbiting dense planets of decadent brownies and a sun of cocoa pudding.
I am not sure how much time Besh spends in his kitchen at August. But whether it is one hundred hours a week or one hundred minutes a year, his brigade is well-tuned and focused. The faux Besh signature on each page of the menu (and website) needs to be retired; its like wearing a high school letter jacket as a freshmen in college. The front of the house service is polished, professional, and well-timed. I can't help but think that a maitre d' would tie the room together like Lebowski's rug. But we are here to talk about the food, and the food at this newish classic is fantastic and faultless. At twenty bucks for lunch, it is the best deal in town.
Restaurant August: Is It Worth It? Absolutely.