Worlds merge at the corner of Bourbon and Iberville streets, disparate groups all sniffing around for the next piece of New Orleans to consume. Swishing through Bourbon House's revolving door at the intersection's southwestern corner is the newest, not to mention civilized, way to conclude that search. It's the latest installment to the Dickie Brennan wing of the French Quarter, joining his nearby steakhouse and Palace Cafe in a mission that all Brennan restaurants seem to share: illuminating the city's ongoing culinary history.
The spinning door deposits you before a tiled raw bar and its oyster plate collection, a seductive introduction whatever your relationship to oysters. Over-filled fried seafood platters and a cinema-size flat-screen television in the adjoining barroom could keep fans from the stadium. And in the main dining area, beneath mirrored columns and lamps that float like blown-glass Christmas ornaments, you're handed a menu stamped with the restaurant's insignia: a crab hoisting a gilded crown into the air by its pinchers. Thus far these ornamental trappings exhibit a professional polish that outshines the food itself, but the kitchen's victories do indicate that its strengths are in the seafood.
Bourbon House is just 3 months old -- half a breath in New Orleans restaurant years -- but if I had to predict its future legacy it would be the Plateaux de Fruits de Mer, available in two intimidating sizes. This chilled seafood platter is set apart by price ($40 or $80) and by exceptional, ice-cold raw oysters, half of which are bare and the other half dressed with herbaceous vinaigrette and a pinch of Louisiana choupique caviar. You get boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce and crab fingers to tug at with your teeth. Cold mussels lined a platter around Christmastime, along with a calamari salad so tender I'm still baffled; two weeks ago, there was a delicate crab salad and the season's first, pretty good, crawfish tails. Spiny lobster, sometimes feral-tasting and other times simply anemic considering its company, unfortunately accounts for a bulk of the price.
A native gourmet will recognize obscure menu items -- shrimp Chippewa, baked fish Grieg -- as resurrections of once-familiar restaurant dishes, though random selection worked for me when greenhorn servers offered no insight into their significance, historic or otherwise. One-One-One is a safe bet, a demitasse sampler that illustrates how three brown soups can taste as profoundly different as a Beaujolais, a Burgundy and a cognac drunk side by side. Sherry, lemon and cinnamon shone through turtle soup; oyster, shrimp, crab and a mighty stock enriched dark seafood gumbo; and thick crawfish bisque was pleasantly bitter, like the muddy chicory coffee.
Speckled trout browned crisp on two sides made a fine amandine, dampened with slightly sweet meuniere sauce. Elegant seafood gratin, a breadcrumb-dusted casserole loosely bound by Alfredo-type sauce, showcased shrimp and sheepshead.
The highest quality seafood can't protect a young kitchen from sloppy mistakes, not even one with veteran Commander's Palace chefs Gus Martin and Jared Tees at the helm. Crabmeat ravigote spiked with Creole mustard and set upon a bed of vinegary greens was good, except that I choked on excessive black pepper. During the same dinner, Gulf Fish Iberville involved gray artichoke hearts the consistency of mashed potatoes and puppy drum with slimy flesh and slimier skin. Super-battered paneed veal tasted like tough chicken-fried steak (though the accompanying fettuccine Alfredo rocked), and an eggy bacon-onion tart appetizer had nothing on winter's raw oysters. My final meal at Bourbon House was the best, which I will attribute to growth rather than to luck, bearing in mind that hope holds no guarantee.
While the menu focuses primarily upon regional seafood preparations, the floor plan and the scope sprawl across sports bar, raw bar, dining room, indoor balcony, banquet facilities, lounge and three meals a day. Even the name is a triple entendre. It points to Bourbon Street, presented through giant windows in one endless, sometimes surreal, take. Secondly, the original Bourbon House, now Embers Steakhouse, was a locals' hangout in its prime. It's too early to tell whether the new one will capture a similar neighborhood spirit, but there's potential around the raw bar.
Finally, there's bourbon, something the folks Bourbon House take seriously in the most understated way. I never once heard mention of the bourbon list, but it's filled with rarities that enthusiasts should investigate. You may instead stick to Manhattans made with vanilla-scented Buffalo Trace, tropical-tasting sippers of Knob Creek, ginger ale and lime, and Old Forester frozen milk punch dusted with nutmeg. I never looked at the wine list either, but that indicates my own weakness, not the staff's.
And that's not to mention the muscular but not bullying bourbon cup custard (more like a flan) or the airy wedges of bread pudding with frothy bourbon sauce.
In the end the question is always, why this restaurant and not someplace else? A brochure I picked up near the entrance reads, "We're bringing back some New Orleans favorites -- dishes we grew up enjoying." My answer: you could do worse than trying what the Brennans grew up eating; until this youngster matures, you could also do better.
- Cheryl Gerber
- BOURBON HOUSE is a sprawling affair, complete with dining room, sports bar, raw bar, indoor balcony, banquet facilities and a lounge.