Thursday, April 15, 2010


A plate of pan roasted halibut with tangerine hollandaise and spring vegetables gets a final dusting of spice from Chef Allison Vines-Rushing of MiLa.

A grit. As a single speck of coarsely ground corn meal, it draws little attraction or attention. But when cooked gently with friends - salt, some cream, a pat of butter - they become human. When a cook folds bits of black truffle into those grits, they become feminine. And when that heaping pile of grits is topped with crispy sweetbreads and a sherry bacon jus, you are staring at the sexiest dish in this hemisphere.

Such a dish is one of the many standouts at MiLa, a powerhouse of a restaurant in the Pere Marquette Renaissance Arts Hotel. The beauty in this dish, and what we have learned is representative of the cooking at MiLa, is how the dish seems so simple, yet so complex. Chefs Slade Rushing and Allison Vines-Rushing have assembled a well-tuned machine of cooks who seem to instinctively know how to not let technique ruin a pristine ingredient.

The craftsmanship of the kitchen crew highlights the ingredients without overshadowing them - much like a loud rock band deciding to play an acoustic first set. Take, for example, a ravioli at a recent dinner held in conjunction with the Crescent City Farmer's Market. First, they juiced kale, reduced it, and added it to fresh pasta dough. Then they stuffed the inside of the plumpy green ravioli with tender, but toothsome, greens. Under the ravioli, dijon punched up the sweetness of a beet puree. On top, a scattering of fried mushrooms marinated to infuse them with the smokiness of bacon. Earthy, rich, umami, soulful, etc... are all words one could use to describe it. But here is something simpler: delicious.

Lettuces most often find themselves relegated to salad bars, burgers, and e. coli outbreaks. But at MiLa, bitter greens and sweet lettuces are braised and pureed into a thick, satisfying soup. The bottom of the bowl holds a little treasure trove of truffles, while a poached egg serves as a raft for a chapeau of crouton. This is not the springy, grassy flavor of lettuces, but a hearty, sturdy undertone of an ingredient which endured through the winter. The assembly of the soup brought forth the image of a field in spring - truffle culled from the earth, the green grass, white cloud of egg, and peeking out from behind the cloud a single burst of bright orange yolk. Artistry, yes; but food first.

On the lunch menu the butter poached chicken deserves your attention. The chicken, plump and juicy, cradles little baby fingerling potatoes. A slight patina of red wine demi glace fortified with bacon added the deep flavors that braising brings to a dish, without sacrificing the juiciness of a well-cooked breast of chicken.

The kitchen here delights in taking a classic Southern or New Orleans dish and reworking it, with new ingredients and techniques. The example oft quoted is their Oysters Rockefeller Deconstructed. But that is not the best example, as we find the licorice root to be too emotional and attention grabbing in what should be a dish highlighting oysters.

But on an early visit, a tian of crab called to mind a variety of dishes from the New Orleans shellfish repertoire, while remaining entirely unique. Petite dice of tomato served as a base and acid component for the sweet jumbo lump tossed in a light sauce. The result was both comforting and challenging.

Shrimp remoulade from MiLa.

Desserts have always been a strong course at MiLa. The desserts bear the watermark of Slade, while Allison usually works the hot or savory side of the line. Slade's desserts call into focus most clearly the vision of the restaurant, "Tastes inspired by a Southern childhood." There are peanut butter and chocolate confections, root beer floats, and strawberry shortcakes all gussied up, without being fussed up.

Service at MiLa struggled in the beginning but has significantly improved with a steady cadre of well-tuned waiters and waitresses. They dress to fit the role of this hip eatery. Brown button downs, designer jeans, and hip sneakers. That can guide your wardrobe choice as well.

As you first enter the restaurant a wall of glass enclosed wine welcomes you. The wine list offers an attractive program where everyday promises 30 wines for $30 by the bottle. That special helps lower the check average if you are dining on a budget, as food costs come in on the higher end of the spectrum. But fear not, as you can experience MiLa at lunch for around $20 for 3 courses.

But what you are paying for is locally sourced, impeccable ingredients and very fine cooking. When MiLa first opened, while we loved the food, it seemed to be a restaurant looking for its identity. And in the same vein, as diners we were trying to figure out what kind of restaurant it was. Is it a hotel restaurant catering to New York hipsters? A place to grab a bite to eat while the wedding you were invited to finishes up next door? French cuisine with a Southern bend? What?

Luckily, for both parties, the question has been answered. MiLa has established itself as a player in the ultra competitive, New Orleans fine dining field. Look around at the number of chefs, highly regarded around the country and world, who practice their craft right here. The competition is fierce to be the best fine dining restaurant in New Orleans. While we don't know if MiLa owns the crown, it certainly belongs in the title round.

The Rankings

Food - Eagle. This kitchen can cook in a highly technical manner without messing up what nature intended. Don't miss - Sweetbreads, truffle grits, sherry bacon jus; BBQ lobster; Scallops; Duck; Whatever dessert makes you remember childhood.

Bar/Wine/Service - Birdie/Par. Great cocktails (Chris McMillan tends bar in the hotel's lobby) and affordable, broad wine list make the bar at MiLa a good place to have a quick bite and a glass of something nice. While service has improved steadily, at these price points and with this beautiful food it could be a bit more attentive. But maybe that is not the vibe they are going for.

Overall - Birdie. Ranking fine dining restaurants is going to be very hard, but MiLa delivers where it counts: with the food and booze. We consider this restaurant to be worth both your time and more importantly your money.

Full Disclosure: We were invited to attend last week's vegetarian dinner. We went and brought the women in our lives. We paid for their meals, but ours were on the house. We tasted the food on their plates, and it was no different.


BC said...

Just when I was struggling to name my garage band, you just walk right in and give it to me, Louapre...long live The Feminine Grits!

Draws from PCU said...

I guess "My Johnson is 12 Inches Long" was taken.

Anonymous said...

hi, great reviews, thank you.

but im confused -- on the MiLa entry, why did they buy your dinners? do your restaurants know you are reviewing them when you dine?