"Look ... at ... this ... place," said a woman before taking her seat at the table next to mine, panning Cobalt's front room with an expression that registered somewhere between horror and admiration. It was the kind of reaction I could imagine her husband triggering the first time he revealed how fabulous he looked in drag.
I initially reacted to Cobalt's furnishings with the same wonder. Primary colors and industrial metals shone alongside mustard tones and warm woods in a visual dissonance that suggested Boy George had resumed decorating duties where Julia Roberts got bored. There were as many ways to sit in that front room as there were female diners in thigh-high boots -- from backless barstools to booths only wide enough for one football player -- and none of them looked comfortable. Mossy green wasabi peas competed against ice-blue jelly beans as bar snacks. And the blue words "No Blue Food" projected onto the ceiling made as much sense to me as naming a restaurant after a pretty but unappetizing color.
This was, however, my third successful meal at Cobalt. I had learned how to navigate the menu and hardly noticed the environment beyond my plate anymore. At the moment of my neighbor's marveling, an oyster pan roast was satisfying a craving I didn't know existed until the first and final bites began to act like ends of ribbon on a gift I would re-open again and again in my memory. Triangles of potato bread toast and I sagged under the spell of perfect oysters in a velvety Herbsaint gravy; there was some wilted spinach, and a wig of salty shoestring potatoes tasted as essential to the pan roast as breadcrumbs on a casserole.
The warming affect of this dish mirrored the snuggly clam chowder I had ordered several evenings prior when the wind tunnel of St. Charles Avenue -- not to mention this autumn's world climate -- had put me in a wool-and-eggnog kind of mood. "The chowder is one of this evening's highlights in the seafood category," said a server who, although he no doubt had found his career calling, underestimated his product. The housemade oyster crackers, just-done lobster claw, daisy-yellow velour of butter and several clams still lodged in their shells composed a chowder that is certain to become my seafood highlight for the season.
While gravy on toast and bowls of creamy seafood were old-fashioned in spirit, they weren't retro like the restaurant's decor and my vodka Cobaltini were. (In the latter, a Blue Curacao Jell-o shot dissolved with the fluidity of a lava lamp.) These entrees were reservoirs of comfort in what felt to me like tragically hip confines. They were boutique equivalents to Betty Crocker-style concepts, and they moved me simultaneously to reminisce and to overeat. Request a table in Cobalt's tamer back room if this style of eating appeals to you, too; the comfort level of food and environment synchronizes better there.
And there's more of this food, comfy and fine as mohair pullover. A panini, for example, ordered off the bar menu, was served with tarragon-potato salad and housemade pickles. Waffled like a Venetian blind, the simple arrangement of bread, Vermont cheddar, tomato and a garlicky polish made the best grilled cheese I ever remember eating. Pickled shrimp, one fried okra, a mustardy devilled egg and summer-quality chunks of marinated tomato composed an appetizer plate like leftovers from a family picnic. Made from scratch, butterscotch pudding with whipped cream and the texture of warm Brie upheld a Bill Cosby sensibility. And Susan's Lemon Tart sang an elementary but pitch-perfect butter song of shortbread and puckerless lemon curd.
This Susan is Susan Spicer, Cobalt's consulting chef who also is chef and part owner at both Bayona in the French Quarter and Herbsaint, located a quick jaunt up St. Charles Avenue from Cobalt. Although the distinct, comforting attitude of my favorite Cobalt foods mirrored tastes I've languished over at her other restaurants -- salmon with sauerkraut at Bayona, fall-apart short ribs at Herbsaint -- Executive Chef Brack May oversees the goods that march from the kitchen on any given night.
The duo collaborated on other innovations that weren't necessarily old-fashioned, just good. Caramelized onions starred in a panini-pressed muffaletta; a stew of shiitake mushrooms, fennel and sage smothering rounds of souffle-like polenta tasted like what wood nymphs might eat for breakfast. Loose-leaf teas came steeping in chubby, stainless steel pots with pitchers of honey and cream.
While my reveries dwell upon the memorable, however, some dishes fell as flat as the modish decor. Venison was well-done, its accompanying tamale gritty as a salt lick. A parched, cut-and-paste German chocolate cake more closely resembled an architectural model than the gooey chocolate and nuts implied in the name. Shucked in October, oysters from New England and the Northwest smelled and tasted like a July harvest.
All tastes accounted for, then, there's just one, small hope I harbor for Cobalt's future: That like the kitchen's boutique renditions of timeless dishes, the trendy, hotel restaurant will re-invent itself over time.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Visual dissonance: From its primary colors and industrial metals to mustard tones and warm woods, COBALT's interior goes for the hipster jugular. But the food goes down easy.