Martinique Bistro's retractable patio roof makes for a pleasant dining experience, even in bad weather (Geoff Worden Photo).
This is the last in a series of articles about some special restaurants in New Orleans where you can get an excellent meal, drink some superb wines and/or cocktails and potentially revel in the appealing arrival of spring by dining al fresco. The idea is to treat yourself a bit during the big Louisiana Derby weekend.
Let me unabashedly declare my devotion to this place and the people that make it great. Martinique has deftly integrated classic French bistro food and Caribbean influences for 20 years and the “new” owners have now been in charge longer than the original founder.
Seasonal menu changes mean you can get in a comfortable rhythm for a few months before delving into new choices. Regular diners occasionally throw fits about favorites disappearing and this can lead to a recurring special. The spring version of the menu, nearly hot off the presses, expands to more of the French-influenced globe by including some Asian touches. There are divergent styles of cuisine on the menu but the dishes remain harmonious. It reflects the passion of the chefs and they can pull it off because they are actually cooking the food, not just designing a menu that reads beautifully only to have the execution fall flat. This is a hands-on operation. If you doubt this, go look in the window at the action - you can see the kitchen from the sidewalk.
Chef Eric Labouchere, a well-traveled, passionate fan of culinary exploration, was very excited about this menu when I visited last week, especially the Pan Roasted Gulf Grouper and the Chargrilled New Zealand Lamb Loin. The fish is served with a yuzu- lemongrass brown butter and is accompanied by edamame, fried rice noodles and pea tendrils. A tunisian couscous salad, spiced field peas and curried charmoula (a North African sauce) are matched with the lamb.
NEW ZEALAND LAMB LOIN
Mussels are always a good choice, presented as an “of the day” feature. The Escargots en Profiterole remain maybe my favorite anywhere, decadent and packed with flavor, you will mop up every drop of sauce. Salads are a strong suit here and the Roasted Ruby Beets would be a wise choice. My mouth is watering already for the Crispy Pork Belly & Duck Leg with, among other goodies, pimento cheese-corn pudding. Chef Ericʼs excellent sous chef, Nat Carrier, is on his second stint with the restaurant after some travel and a few years in Bayonaʼs kitchen.
Jennifer Sherrod has been running the front of the house and building the wine list for about 15 years. Her familiar, smiling countenance makes everyone feel at home even if it is their first visit. The wine list is well constructed but not overwhelming and they have a cellar, which happily means your bottle will be the right temperature! Wines by the glass are diverse and there are ten half bottles available as well in case your dining companion’s tastes donʼt match yours.
Au Bon Climat Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris 2012 ($45) makes a great apéritif and the Stony Hill Chardonnay 2008 (yes, this wine is made to age - $84) is perfect with the escargot. Robert Sinskey wines nearly always are represented on the list and the 2010 Pinot Noir ($84) works wonders when surf and turf are on the same table. Marc Bredif Chinon 2011 displays similar magic at a lesser price ($38). Be sure to consider a cocktail before the wine, Jen often leads the creative charge here and always has some fun options.
Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday. Classic dishes are offered but with upgraded concepts. Have a Bourbon Milk Punch and then ease into some Grillades, braised pork loin with grits (a New Orleans staple) or Pig in a Hole, pork belly and duck cracklins in a corn johnnycake.
The high-walled patio has always been inviting but weather challenges it sometimes. If it starts to rain there is often no room inside as there are essentially as many seats outside as in. The restaurant erected a tent a few years ago that protected to a point but a recent upgrade might make this the best, and most reliable, outdoor dining experience around. They now have a retractable roof for their garden patio. I’m told that even during a steady rain, dining can continue uninterrupted - a lovely bonus for a storm-heavy city. The interior is lovely and intimate (very French) but there will be plenty of time for inside soon enough. For now, I crave the outdoors and Martinique Bistro satisfies that desire beautifully. I counted a dozen tables on the patio.
John Harris made a name for himself working at Gautreauʼs, an uptown outpost known for nurturing great culinary talent, but he also worked in town at Bayona with Susan Spicer. Lilette, named after the matriarch of a family John lived with in France, displays strong Italian and French influences but doesnʼt get restricted by that.
It is a strong testament to Johnʼs cooking that the core items on the menu have been there since the beginning, nearly 15 years. Do not mistake this for laziness or ennui. This is not a tired tourist trap in the French Quarter dishing out sub-par food because most people wonʼt be back even if itʼs really good. Locals dominate Liletteʼs business and they return, often. Many of them know what theyʼre going to eat before they leave the house. They know the food, they understand the food and they love the food. Flavors are layered but not confusing and ingredients are interesting but not intimidating. The food is straightforward and sublime. The menu lists ingredients but avoids flowery descriptions and even verbs, perhaps reflecting Johnʼs desire to highlight the food itself not some fancy technique in the kitchen.
Signature dishes include appetizers of Grilled Beets (goat cheese, walnuts), Sizzling Shrimp (lemon-oregano vinaigrette) and Potato Gnocchi (sage, brown butter cream). The gnocchi might make you mad at everyone else who ever made you gnocchi because this is so much better.
Entrees include my favorite menu tweak of all time. Most restaurants will pick a fish of the day and maybe serve it with a favorite sauce or two. John flipped this on its head, offering a Grilled Black Drum with “daily accompaniments” at lunch. The fish is also available, sautéed, at dinner. Drum is readily available here in Louisiana, itʼs also tasty and versatile with various flavors.
Hanger Steak also sees lunch and dinner representation with different sauces but always with crispy, I-could-eat-them-all-day fries. A handful of enticing sandwiches are also available at lunch, while dinner brings another way to enjoy the gnocchi - with Braised Beef Cheeks. Do not feel stuck ordering these long time favorites but if you havenʼt visited Lilette before you would be remiss in not getting some of them.
The cocktails are worth exploring. The Last Word (gin-based) and Skeleton Key (rye- based) beckon me the most. However, wineʼs come-hither command tends to speak louder for me. Appropriately, the list relies heavily on French selections, especially Burgundy, with plenty of Italian reds as well, but there is something for everyone. The Bandol Rosé from La Bastide Blanche ($62) would be perfect for a wide variety of food and a warm day/night. There are a trio of Cru Beaujolais ($48-$80) which would do much the same task if you want a versatile red wine. I would be tempted to drink the lovely Graham Beck Brut Rosé throughout the meal ($11/glass). The dozen half bottles listed allow you to pair each course if you choose.
I do not spend much time talking about desserts. I figure a dessert either calls to you or not and my palate runs more toward the savory. I would almost always rather have an extra appetizer than dessert. However, the Quenelles of Goat Cheese Crème Fraîche (poached pear, pistachios and lavender honey) makes my toes curl. Itʼs light on sugar but the sweet subtlety of ingredients coupled with their amazing dance across your palate make this a must have. Having fruit in the dish makes me almost feel healthy. This also has been available from day one.
There is no brunch here but lunch is served Tuesday through Saturday (dinner Monday through Saturday). The atmosphere is friendly and professional and most of the patrons seem to know each other. The inside can get boisterous because of this but there is some quieter space as well. The outside seating runs along the building behind a short iron fence and it is nicely shaded without blocking the sun entirely. The chairs alone immediately take me to sidewalk seating at a café in Paris. I counted a dozen tables.
John Harris also opened another drinking/dining spot next door called Bouligny Tavern. There are some outdoor seating options there as well.
By no means has this been an exhaustive list but these are all excellent restaurants and you will be happy dining at any of them, even if youʼre inside. See you at the Louisiana Derby and maybe one of these gems as well ...