The moment I stepped into the burgundy box of Mondrianic shapes -- gold-gilded mirrors, teensy square floor tiles, larger black bar tiles and straight-edge tables -- one small phrase refueled my appetite. Past the gaggle of 50 exultant diners warming every seat, scrawled at the top of the specials blackboard in pink were the gutsy words "boudin noir." Blood sausage. It was time to eat.
First came a bitters and tonic at the bar, though, while anticipating a wide, vinyl booth. A server winked from across the room, promising to keep quiet about my performance on a Pittsburgh-style sandwich a few days earlier. With each bite, halves the size of guinea pigs had spilled capicola ham, cabbage slaw, provolone cheese and skinny fries. The discreet waiter had caught me ignoring the decadent, luscious grease polishing my chin from grilled sourdough bread. I was opening wide for another go at it when he said, "Not a very feminine sandwich, is it?" I don't wear skirts every day, either, but he wouldn't know that.
Actually, some of the best things at Lilette were masculine. The battered, bread-crumbed and fried link of boudin noir was ripe with sweat and earth. It crumbled like clay from its crusty casing. I rescued every last speck with the heel of my fork, spearing roly-poly cornichon along the way. Another startling appetizer of squishy bone marrow, white truffle-soaked Parmesan toast and shiitakes steeped in root beer-tinted veal glace was manly in a citified, cognac-with-cappuccino way. A similar marrow sauce bulked up a burly cut of beef -- a chewy, rare hanger steak -- served with crisp tangles of French fries. And I must mention the hunky kitchen guys in white shirts and low-slung aprons checking in with the tousle-haired host.
Everyone looks good illuminated underneath lamps hanging in various planes of orbit like astral bodies in Lilette's dark wine and cream space. The fashionable food and hipped-out vibe could be oppressive without the surrounding windows yawning open onto Uptown. The corner store where neighbors pick up Kool hard-packs stared from across Magazine Street, and a man in pastel plaid strolling past with two poodles waved at me.
I tilted my Lillet cocktail in his direction. It was the kind of perfumey drink an old French woman might concoct in the waning hours of afternoon from a jar of vanilla beans preserved in the refreshing aperitif -- a French woman like the grandmotherly Lilette. It was she who, so the story goes, took Chef John Harris under her wing while he was cooking in France between stints at Bayona and Gautreau's.
Is she the French connection supplying that boudin, I wondered? Was it Lilette who taught him to bake that salty, delicate cornbread that fell apart like croutons from heaven into a salad of Bibb lettuce (despite its unwieldy form), roasted red pepper cream, curds of mellow feta and tomato? Could it be coincidence that lavender honey glazed underneath sweetened quenelles of airy goat cheese and poached pear tasted like it came straight from the market in Provence?
My friend was right. Whether the kitchen's gifts were due to grandmotherly instruction or divine intervention, I couldn't forfeit tastes of anything. Not the potato and almond skordalia smeared on fried eggplant with shriveled yellow tomatoes, basil leaves and salted, tar-like black olives. Nor chickpeas rolling around a fleshy piece of polenta-seared tuna. Peppery arugula dressed in a loud, Meyer lemon vinaigrette powered this effortless entree.
But it was the braciola (Italian for "roulade") that raised my expectations for the afterlife. I've known for awhile that salvation involves chunky tomato sauce, creamy polenta and Parmesan. But this curl of flattened veal, prosciutto, pine nuts and warm spice collapsing in the center added further reason to transgress. Our stoic server broke my heart when he reported the dish had been deemed too heavy for a New Orleans summer. It might already be a tomato stain on the paper menu.
Let this be a public appeal to Chef John Harris. It was a scorching June evening when I -- hardly an hour after praying to mon dieu for stomach capacity -- fell in love with your braciola. Keep it on the menu or I'll tell Lilette.