Sainte Marie's assertively spiced barbecue jerk shrimp, loudly and wonderfully dressed with sweet and tart mango chow chow, could have come from a different restaurant than the subtle and delicate quinoa and crabmeat salad. But these starkly different dishes point in the same direction — to refreshing originality and consistency at a restaurant that has long needed a stronger dose of both.
They're each standouts on the latest menu at Sainte Marie, where a revamp that's been underway for some time (and was interrupted by tragedy) is coming into full bloom.
That's not necessarily evident at first glance. The soaring dining room and sleek bar have the same design that turned heads when Sainte Marie first opened in a brand-new CBD high-rise in 2010. It still feels like an upscale lunchroom for dealmakers by day and a gastro-lounge at night. But earlier menus mixing French standards and comfort food trends always seemed more about form than fulfilling flavor, and the restaurant's identity felt unsettled from visit to visit.
Then Sainte Marie shook things up, from the management team to the kitchen to the bar, where the earlier Champagne theme was replaced by craft cocktails (I like the "peaches and Jimador"). Overall, a renewed Sainte Marie was emerging when, in January, its young chef Ngoc Nguyen died after a heart attack. His recent successor is Kristen Essig, a veteran of local A-list kitchens and a former Crescent City Farmers Market manager. She's kept some of Nguyen's dishes and added plenty of her own for a menu that jumps between East and West but tends to land squarely on the sweet spot.
Peaches and snap beans plump up that quinoa and crabmeat salad, and the addition of smoked goat cheese pulls off the nifty trick of making the crab taste smoked without diminishing its fresh sweetness. In one particularly impressive entree, roasted duck was burgundy-rare under a crackinglike crust and strands of confit threaded a hearty risotto. Perhaps because of the season, most of my favorites were among the lighter appetizers and salads, such as a dish of fried oysters with slivered apples in a tangle of peppery watercress. A visibly overcooked skewer of beef riding shotgun with cool noodle salad notched a rare disappointment.
Steak frites, Cobb salad and a pricey burger are solid though predictable and also near-requirements for an upscale restaurant courting downtown business lunches. The mussels might have made that category too, but for an exhilarating red miso broth elevating them above the pack.
Sainte Marie also is one of the only places where you'll hear a waiter inquiring about your yaka mein. It's a salty standard of second lines and corner stores, but here it is recast for fine dining with house-made egg noodles, large shrimp and a $13 price tag. In other words, it has no street cred, but it is delicious and I'd order it again in a heartbeat.