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Middle Ground

Discovering RAY-BARB'S GOLD ROOM RESTAURANT is somewhere in between finding a glitter palace upon its opening and the ancient buried treasure of an older neighborhood restaurant.

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Some adventurous eaters search for new food at glittering palaces with pressed, white tablecloths and chefs who treat cooking like an art. Others assume that delicious finds are like ancient buried treasure. Somewhere, there must be a wonderful restaurant that has been open for decades but is known to almost no one. Between these two extremes, there are intriguing places like the recently opened Ray-Barb's Gold Room. In some ways, it's an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant, but its careful preparation of classic dishes and the kitchen's touches of innovation show that it has higher ambitions.

The Gold Room is in a Harvey strip mall and feels like a banquet room. The chairs are designed to be stacked. The walls are decorated with silk flowers. Add some white ribbon, a DJ, a garter belt and a dance floor, and you could have one hopping wedding reception.

The first time I visited for lunch, I waited a few minutes at the vacant hostess stand. The dark, cavernous room just past the lobby was empty, but I heard laughter and conversation somewhere in back. I followed the voices and found two sunny rooms full of customers. A waitress noticed me, led me to a table and then read off the daily lunch specials of classic New Orleans comfort food, such as red beans, stewed pork chops, and meatballs and spaghetti, all priced at $6.99.

I settled on Mr. Rayfield's gumbo and rice served with a scoop of creamy yellow potato salad and a slice of French bread. The filŽ-style gumbo had a delicious, thin broth and was thick with hot, smoked and andouille sausages; shrimp; crab claws; chicken; and turkey necks. I stared, as discreetly as possible, at what diners were eating at other tables and made mental notes on which lunch specials I would order next time.

The moist, clean-tasting catfish is fried to a perfect sandy shade. You could run a white glove over the fillet and not pick up a drop of oil. The meatloaf is a thick patty full of onions and garlic, with a hint of pink in the center. It's topped with meaty brown gravy instead of a sweet ketchup sauce. The red beans were in a thin broth that wasn't so full of spices that it masked the taste of the beans. Even a side of canned corn had been transformed with butter and herbs into something that I wanted to eat.

One day, I asked if the pork chops were better fried or grilled. I was told, "That depends. Do you want good or do you want healthy?" I wanted good. "They're both good."

I didn't try the fried pork chop, but the grilled pork chop certainly was good. I wondered, however, if it was really grilled. The sheen of oil across the chop hinted that it might have been cooked in a saute pan instead of on a grill. The Gold Room has an odd idea of what's healthy. An a la carte menu, available at lunch in addition to the specials, includes a category called "Healthier Approach." I tried the crawfish veggie roll, one of the healthy options. It was crawfish and fresh vegetables wrapped in a wonton wrapper and deep-fried. I'm no dietician, but I don't think that this dish should be part of a low-fat diet.

The a la carte menu is a bridge between lunch and dinner, with many of the same appetizers, salads, seafood platters and desserts served in the evening with higher prices and larger portions. The Gold Room does an excellent job with the more elegant items in the local culinary canon. The corn-crab bisque was thick with claw meat. The few kernels of corn were more of a seasoning, and a good balance of salt and pepper kept the cream and crab from being cloying. The barbecue shrimp, listed as an appetizer but large enough for an entree, was complex and addictive. The head-on shrimp are cooked in a base of oyster liquid, Worcestershire, fresh garlic and herbs. The chef adds a touch of heavy cream when he thickens the broth with butter. The dinner menu also includes some unexpected dishes, such as Thai barbecue ribs and filet mignon with a pinot noir reduction.

For dessert, the cheesecake topped with amaretto whipped cream is both fluffy and rich. The refreshing apple pie, an individual-sized piecrust filled with sweet apple chunks and topped with a cinnamon crumb, dispenses with the gooey filling of the all-American version.

The Gold Room's chef, Ray Lewis, has cooked his way across the kitchens of New Orleans. He worked as a line cook at Delmonico, a pastry chef at Muriel's Jackson Square and, most recently, as the executive sous-chef at Alex Patout's. When Lewis saw the Gold Room's ad seeking a chef, he immediately called owners Rayfield and Barbara White, even though it was 10 p.m. Rayfield was ready to hang up on him, but Barbara said that anyone willing to call that late must really want the job. Lewis went to the Whites' house, cooked his barbecue shrimp and was rewarded with his own kitchen at the Gold Room. Rayfield and Barbara got lucky when they found Lewis.

I felt lucky as well when I discovered the Gold Room. I didn't expect to find a new restaurant in Harvey that cooks local favorites as tasty as what you might find at venerable restaurants on the other side of the river. After first seeing the Gold Room's modest atmosphere, I never would have guessed that the kitchen was led by an ambitious young chef with high standards. The Gold Room proves that it's best not to make too many assumptions when searching for food, or you just might overlook a gem.

When Chef Ray Lewis (left) found out that Rayfield and - Barbara White were going to open the GOLD ROOM - RESTAURANT, he made a late-night phone call for an - audition that paid off. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • When Chef Ray Lewis (left) found out that Rayfield and Barbara White were going to open the GOLD ROOM RESTAURANT, he made a late-night phone call for an audition that paid off.

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