Belle Forche opened like a Hollywood blockbuster -- with marquee-size names, an element of suspense and a good chunk of cash invested but not much of a ready-made retinue. Chef-owner Matt Yohalem is nationally known for two restaurants in Santa Fe, N.M., but he was virtually anonymous here. Marketing hyped celebrity investor Robert De Niro, chancing that New Orleanians would bother with a celebrity restaurateur whose name isn't Brennan, Spicer or Lagasse. Passersby pressed their faces to the windows winding down Decatur Street and up Frenchmen Street, to get a load of the 600-gallon saltwater aquarium in the renovated building. Belle Forche, we were told, is a Caribbean colloquialism for "bon appetit." And the opening menu was half-Creole and half-Criolle, a nearly unprecedented cooking philosophy in New Orleans that exposes the roots of our Creole cookery by incorporating influences from France, Spain and the West Indies.
It was a lot to digest. One tweak to the marketing strategy, however, delineated the restaurant's forte by targeting a specific audience: the late-night set. Anticipating this fall's party-hungry coeds, someone recently stapled Tulane University's undergraduate campus with flyers for Belle Forche's Cafe -- a sidecar to the more formal dining room where, three nights a week, you can rest your elbows on stain-proof tablecloths and order caramelized plantains, mussels in white wine sauce and bottles of Francis Coppola's deep purple Black Label Claret until 2:30 a.m. On a street that picks up where the French Quarter leaves off, where the weekend block parties peak long after midnight, after-hours dining is at least as indispensable as the busy tattoo parlor.
You may grab a fried oyster sandwich before African line dancing at Cafe Brasil, and the banana beignets cost less than some beers at d.b.a. The Cafe is also prime for feeding your mother grillades and grits when her plane lands late and La Peniche is too Marigny for her first night in town. If the Cafe is full you'll land a white-clothed table in the front half of the dining room, where the dreamy underwater decor -- blood-red drapes undulating from floor to ceiling, a wall mural of hippy mermaids, lampshades like luminous red seaweed -- grows on you by the hour.
So does the food. A pork chop crusted with rosemary and salt could cure the munchies forever; its side of Puerto Rican-esque sweet potato mofongo -- sweet potatoes mashed with plantains -- insinuates that this Criolle thing isn't all gimmick. The "sticky" half-chicken smothered in peppery gravy and shoestring potatoes would be unnervingly gummy by the light of day, but it has the rib-sticking allure of chili cheese fries during Cafe hours. A racy mixture of piquant eggplant, bell peppers and sharp-tongued watercress is the only kind of salad one should be allowed to order after midnight.
And, finally, here's a fine dining restaurant that's willing to be a destination at all hours for gooey desserts, like the reverse-volcano molten chocolate cake with its breath of cinnamon and Steen's cane syrup ice cream, and the chocolate-almond bread pudding that's everything you want from a chocolate pudding. One waiter welcomed an early table of low-ticket dessert eaters as if they were paying his way to the Bahamas. Though given to extreme theatrics, he represented the overall competence of Belle Forche's staff. There's a solid infrastructure of service in place that's been as hard to find lately as a cab during Mardi Gras.
Dinner at Belle Forche is all the more reason to consider the late-night option. Nothing about dinner was exactly offensive, but at double the bill, half the ambience and a fraction of flavor, nothing hastens my return either. A duck confit salad was overdone: The duck leg, only tender at the bone, was thirsty; the greens slumped in a salty vinaigrette. Fried oysters "in tuxedo" were as seductive as a ripe plum beneath their cornmeal batter; sadly, dollops of white truffle mayonnaise tasted only like lemon, and shaved black truffles for garnish didn't taste at all. An etouffee of shrimp, boneless frog leg and andouille spooned over half a fried eggplant was pleasant but so refined you might find it at any Cajun restaurant in Chicago. Gray and woody artichoke hearts spoiled a rigatoni pasta.
There's a silent alarm, a sort of visceral buzz, that sounds when great food passes through your lips. If I had felt its ringing at all during dinner, I might not be so bothered by the menu. It's unclear reading it -- and no clearer eating from it -- whether Yohalem is inspired to preserve Creole cooking as New Orleanians know it, to reinvent it, to throw it a reunion on Martinique, or all of the above. Moist mahi mahi topped with a hashbrown-like plantain crust argues with some gusto for the island reunion, but I'm still left with this niggling feeling that connecting with this food shouldn't be so complicated.
And yet, after eight months, a restaurant with Belle Forche's ambitions has perhaps only just begun -- there could be time for further editing. In cornering the late-night dining market on Frenchmen Street, Yohalem and friends have already secured one laudable niche.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Sean Green serves customers late into the night at Belle Forche, which stays open until 2:30 a.m. to capitalize on the Frenchmen Street action.