As the waterproofing of New Orleans continues, the Big Easy has something new to fret about. Its reputation as one of the nation's top three cities for dining out - New York and San Francisco are the others, right? - sustained a critical blow Sunday night when Michael Symon defeated John Besh to win the Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef" series.
Besh is from New Orleans. Symon is from...Cleveland. Besh owns Restaurant August, which seems to be topping every visiting critic's list of the city's best restaurants. He also owns La Provence just outside New Orleans, Besh Steakhouse in the New Orleans branch of Harrah's Hotel Casino, and his newest restaurant, Luke, at the Hilton Hotel along St. Charles Avenue in the Central Business District, on the edge of the French Quarter.
Luke is where we ended up last night, savoring Besh's French-inspired and modern-oriented take on Southern cooking. Watermelon pickles endure, but the pates they accompany are apt to be made of wild boar or Louisiana rabbit. The chicory salad was spiced up with lardons and Creole mustard. My jumbo Louisiana shrimp came on creamy white-corn grits enriched with andouille. Long before you get to desserts like housemade butter-pecan ice cream and a tangy and toasty "tarte Tatin" of apples, pears and red currants, you recognize that Besh goes in to for a muscular style of Southern cooking, at least at Luke.
He conceived the restaurant as a throwback brasserie, with ceiling fans turned by an oldtime pulley-and-belt system, wooden newspaper racks arranged tidily across a front partition, big gleaming bowls of oysters on ice at the entrance, and even its own lineup of beers. The wine list is strictly German and French, and wines are poured into tumblers rather than stemware. The place is comfortable, boisterous and loud. My only serious complaint abut Luke was that service was way too slow. Now that Besh is finished with the TV series he can get back home and get his staff at Luke into more attentive shape.
Anyone planning to visit New Orleans in the near future also should be aware that the city's restaurant scene again is buzzing. Even on a Monday night last-minute reservations were nearly impossible to book, at least at restaurants of the kind rated by Zagat. The earliest we could get into Luke was 9 p.m. I wonder if visitors to Cleveland have the same problem.