Chateaubriand's ubiquitous logo can be unnerving. Like those Jesus impressions with the roving eyes, thick steer heads glower from posts around the restaurant, making you wonder how you ever got to the top of the food chain. I was deep into the raspberry sherbet color of a medium-rare steak before first noticing a beret impaled on one of the steers' horns. The intimidating emblem suddenly struck me as a whimsical illustration of Chateaubriand's purpose: integrating classical French cuisine and the ideals of an American steakhouse into a menu that preserves the autonomy of both.
Chef Gerard Crozier's French pedigree is distinctly pronounced (not so well by servers) in the restaurant's name, in side dishes like gratin Savoyard and pommes frites, and in appetizers of escargots Bourguignonne and pate de campagne. He seems to have decided, however, that while you can place a beret on the steer, you can't take the US out of USDA Prime; the dinnertime beef menu runs the standard American steakhouse course. From ribeye to New York strip, most cuts are served a la carte so that, as usual, a bill for two easily exceeds $70 without wine or dessert.
The only exception in nationality and price is the restaurant's eponym, a jiggling, charred roast cut for two from the heart of the tenderloin and named for the deceased French political leader and beefeater, Francois Chateaubriand. Basically a filet mignon on steroids, it was more tender than either the ice-cold butter pats or the sourdough bread with a bangle of crust that cut into gums like those x-ray bite pads at the dentist. A server proved this tableside by pressing what could have been a butter knife through the meat as if it were pate. And while I concur with gourmets who scorn baby-soft filets for more marbled cuts, forkfuls of the salt and pepper-crusted Chateaubriand basted in its own juices and butter was like eating a caramel apple from the stick.
Breadcrumbed-and-broiled tomatoes Provence, haricots verts (green beans), gratin Savoyard (thinly-sliced scalloped potatoes), and butter-logged baby zucchini and patty pan squash automatically accompanying the roast transformed it into an timeless, no-decisions-necessary meal. Do splurge for a side of pommes frites, though. The bronzed French fries needed more crisp but were perfect for dipping into the potatoes' clotted, garlicky cream.
The Chateaubriand dinner's uncomplicated elegance compensated for flops elsewhere: the bread (which improved with each visit), excruciatingly slow service (we waited 20 minutes for menus; brunch was longer than a Sunday drive) and lifeless atmosphere. It's difficult to gauge what first impressions would have transpired if the dining room hadn't been frigid, if my view hadn't been directed down a hallway to the restrooms, and if I prized an environment as bright and bland as a hotel lobby for devouring food as seductive as beef and Burgundy. Once my server finished loudly blessing his other customers, however, he was quite nice. And the undesirable conditions only heightened my gratitude for warm crepes folded into origami dessert pockets oozing creamy lemon curd like jelly doughnuts.
The renovated Mid-City space, formerly a Shoney's restaurant, appealed to my sensibilities more during the day when sun streaming through wide windows lit the fun, Mary Poppinsish wall mural of chirpy birds and topiaries and softened the contrast between flimsy ceiling tiles and gorgeous, velvety draperies. As I bathed in a pool of sunlight engulfing a barstool one afternoon, the best reason for lunching at Chateaubriand -- or anywhere -- came across my plate. It was a medium-rare onglet (hanger steak) as beefy as a strip steak, as gamy as elk meat and as rich as foie gras; sliced against the grain and smothered in caramelized shallots and pan juices. Unlike other members of the a la carte system, the inexpensive onglet came with now-crispier fries and a salad of mixed greens dressed in the same sublime, straightforward Dijon vinaigrette that coated a salad of Belgian endive and frisee at dinner and greens with smoked salmon rosettes for brunch.
Which is when I tasted the strongest evidence that the French chef-owner and his wife have spent the past 25 years catering to New Orleanians (their former Crozier's Bistro in Metairie is now the French Table). Characteristics of our regional cuisine creep into his menus as naturally as tarragon creeps into bearnaise sauce, exhibited in items like baby quail stuffed with cornbread, andouille sausage and crawfish tails, and gooey pecan pie. With layers of pliable caramel and liquid chocolate, the pie was like eating a candy bar left on the dashboard. Only oily nuggets of paneed sweetbreads served alongside a lentil salad maced with raw garlic didn't live up to the refined air of a post-mass Sunday at Chateaubriand.
The 3-month-old restaurant clearly has developed a following of steakhouse regulars, from churchgoing families to silver foxes with waifish dates to the thick-spectacled man beefing it alone in the corner. It would be too easy to assume that these fast customers are mere sheep following the Croziers' already stunning reputation; I suspect that many of them, like me, have tasted something better drawing them to this new, beret-wearing animal.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Sunlight streams through the windows during the day at Mid-City's CHATEAU BRIAND, New Orleans' latest steakhouse venture.