It can be difficult for first-time visitors to spot Gautreau's, a restaurant cloistered on an Uptown side street with no sign or outward indication of the business going on behind its frosted glass doors and heavily draped windows. But national culinary accolades have no trouble finding the place. In June, Gautreau's 27-year-old chef Sue Zemanick was named among Food & Wine magazine's top 10 new chefs in the nation. That's a tremendous honor, but for Gautreau's it was nothing new: In 2004, then-chef Mat Wolfe won the same award, as did Larkin Selman in 1993.
Yet none of the acclaim is evident in the low-key, stately way Gautreau's does business, as if it were a speakeasy trying to duck wide notice. Even on the menu, things seem a bit hush-hush. Nothing comes roaring off the page as a must-try dish or daring rendition. Filet mignon, roasted chicken, duck breast, snapper and tuna " it all sounds like the offerings from a dozen or more local menus. The difference here is how they come together in distinctive and highly satisfying ways.
Hallmarks of Zemanick's cooking are maturity and the precision of fine ingredients working in harmony. Light, subtle sauces trace a dish rather than smother it, but still assert essential flavor. The result is more satisfying than breathtaking, achieving success that food at this level of ambition and cost should, but does not, always deliver.
My favorite first course here is Zemanick's cool, refreshing salad of watermelon, jicama and fennel. Simple yet alive with flavor, the combination of mint vinaigrette and cubes of sweet watermelon was electric, giving a gentle pucker and burst of sweet moisture among the varied, wet crunchiness of the other vegetables.
A mainstay of the seasonal menu is the blue crab timbale appetizer. Light-tasting, irregular chunks of crabmeat seem freshly tugged from the shell while rings of fried, sharply flavored shallots, a base of curried mango and a further ring of cilantro oil add more flavor and texture. Sweetbreads were panéed and cooked very crisp, with a smoky mash of eggplant with currants and pine nuts to cut through the richness.
The snapper entrée boasted a thick, scored armor of skin protecting tender white flesh. Beneath it were firm gnocchi, plus chewy, earthy, beautiful trumpets of chanterelle. The most unusual find on Zemanick's menu are crusty, wild mushroom-stuffed pierogies. There would be no sneaking these past a Polish grandmother who makes the traditional soft, slurpable home versions, but on their own merits there's no arguing with the well-seasoned filling, the sweet, caramelized onions draped above or the mellow creme frache pooled around them. The roasted chicken was a straightforward presentation cooked exceptionally well, with bits of pepper biting into the fat skin of the bird.
There are no outright duds on the menu, though some fall short of expectations. Half-dollar-sized plugs of pork tenderloin were beautifully cooked and trussed with bacon, but the pork jus didn't add much to the dish. The fried green beans were tasty, especially with the jalapeño aioli dotted around them, but I wanted more of that aioli to spike up the pork, the jus and the fresh but lost-seeming corn kernels. The duck breast was another letdown, primarily because the promised blood orange in the glaze was not discernable.
The dessert list is underwhelming, and unless you've been thinking about the restaurant's long-standing vanilla bean crme brlée or flourless chocolate cake, there isn't much else to command you once more into the breach. The surprising exception is the banana split, presented in classic soda-fountain fashion, down to the oblong glass bowl. Here, however, the banana is caramelized and the ice cream rests on a square of moist, dense banana bread. Gautreau's is another example of the happy revival of cheese plates, and here they are as well-sourced as any and served with darkly toasted raisin bread, a wonderful foil to blue cheese.
The staff seems to know the wine list well, and they make good suggestions if something is unavailable or indecision grips the table. One pitfall of the dining room is the lack of a bar or any other place to wait for a table. Unless your timing is precise or lucky, you may find yourself milling around the doorway.
The clubby ambience, the courteous servers and the dapper patrons give the room an air of formality that stops just short of stuffy; this is old school, not hip. Even on a weeknight in thickest summer, the majority of male patrons wear ties. Yet this is also a place where we had no qualms about sopping every drop of sauce from our plates with tears of bread from excellent, crusty French rolls served with pots of deliciously dense butter. That was just another fine touch in a restaurant where the little things add up to a very appealing big picture.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Gautreau's Sue Zemanick was named one of the top 10 chefs in the nation in the June issue of Food & Wine.