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Review: Restaurant R'evolution

Ian McNulty on New Orleans' most ambitious new restaurant of 2012

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Sizzling Oysters R'evolution are topped with smoked Bienville butter. - PHOTO BY IAN MCNULTY

With two high-profile chefs, a build-up lasting two years and the very name over the door, Restaurant R'evolution sets expectations somewhere in the upper stratosphere. So it's been surprising, since the place opened in June inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel, to discover a restaurant that stands out for reviving certain restaurant experiences rather than by revolutionizing them.

  Surprising, but not disappointing. R'evolution was billed from the start as blending the Louisiana culinary roots long championed by chef John Folse and the culinary daring of chef Rick Tramanto, who achieved national acclaim at avant-garde Chicago restaurants. On the table, this works out as something I call conspicuously contemporary Creole cuisine. Dishes have lots of flair and gilding and sometimes their own narratives, but R'evolution's cuisine is not so different from how other top New Orleans chefs are cooking today.

  In fact, it's possible to assemble a perfectly conventional dinner here (broiled oysters, seafood pastas, expense account steaks) or tour Tramanto's earlier hits: the chef's "caviar staircase," arrayed on tiny steps, for instance, or his gorgeous, camera-ready, cappuccino-style soup.

  Other dishes show the impressive technical precision of this kitchen, which is led by chef de cuisine Chris Lusk: a combination of buttery red snapper and sticky pork belly; a "Napoleon" striped with alternating layers of flounder and crawfish stuffing and a pool of oyster stew as sauce; a ruddy sheen of venison carpaccio, aromatic with specks of dark chocolate, walnuts and slivered grapes. They're visually intricate, like dioramas on the plate, and pastry chef Erin Swanson continues the theme with bread pudding under hives of spun sugar or a sack of beignets with candied coffee beans, pot de creme and fig jam.

  This is creative interpretation of recognizable Louisiana traditions, which is contemporary Creole as we've long known it. But how R'evolution really stands apart is by applying this approach to the entire restaurant experience. The space is sumptuous, intimate and elegant — a succession of rooms decked with murals, flowers and culinary antiques, like an old Creole mansion. But here diners also are invited to admire cases where charcuterie cures and a gleaming, state-of-the-art kitchen that could be a Food Network set. The cocktail menu keeps pace with house-made fashions, but before dessert a waitress wheels up a cheese cart, as if from another generation, and afterward comes a genteel presentation of small sweets, called "mignardises."

  This last taste is gratis, though you've certainly paid for it somewhere in the meal. R'evolution is priced like a casino restaurant, and even a cautious dinner for two can quickly top $200.

  But if any restaurant looks like it should be pricey, it's this one. Everything aims for formal, Old World grandeur, showing what might have been had one of our French-Creole grandes dames submitted to a major modernization a decade ago. Now that even expensive new restaurants are gunning for "casual upscale," R'evolution makes the case more for bucking trends than setting new ones.

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