Thursday, May 27, 2010

Meauxbar Bistro

From March to April, Meauxbar Bistro enjoyed popularity rivaled only by Justin Bieber. A recent request for a Thursday night reservation for two was met with a sigh of relief: "This is the easiest table request I have had in the past 3 weeks." The restaurant on Rampart Street - whose usual clientele consists of insiders and French Quarter denizens - has capitalized on weeknight performances at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre and curious customers like ourselves who are eager to discover what we're missing out on.

To separate the lively restaurant from the outside world is not only a door, but also a curtained off foyer. Once inside, the staff (either purposefully or not) does a good job of separating the customers as well. As evidenced by the fact that in two separate visits, the host sat us and our companions at perhaps the worst table in New Orleans. This table is bordered by a window, a clunking ice machine, and the busy walkway the waiters use to ferry out drinks and return empty plates to the kitchen. Standing directly over your date's shoulder is one of the owners who from his perch behind the bar surveys the scene while drinking red wine. You may feel as though you are being watched.

The interior of Meauxbar anchors a dark bar to red and white tiled floors illuminated by dim lights. The Buddha statue strewn barback lends a vibe reminiscent of both Restoration Hardware and a Buddhist brothel. From the bar a thick, satiny banner of red cloth separates the good side of the restaurant from the bad like a prayer flag atop Everest. Sit on the good side, and you dine under alternating frames of mirrors and paintings of nature with laughter and the clinking of glasses. On the bad side is the ice machine and the clink of glasses into a bus tray. As in the choice between heaven and hell, be proactive before someone else decides your fate.

The Asian influence seeps from the decor onto the plate. A flounder en papillote (on Rene's visit it was grouper) comes stuffed with spices and flavoring of the orient: lemongrass, coconut milk, ginger, curry, and shitakes. The pretty package perfumes the table, but the fish does not absorb the flavors and the sauce is anorexic. Likewise with the appetizer of mussels, which were steamed to plump and tender perfection, but let down by frozen french fries and a tepid red curry broth.

Another curious detail of Meauxbar concerns the prices. You will be pleased to learn that the entrees, like a child actor, rarely turn 30. You may be less pleased to know that this is only slightly more expensive than the appetizers with no noticeable uptick in quality. Witness a steak tartare ($18), its luscious texture studded with capers and bits of anchovy, topped with the golden yolk of a quail. Crispy, buttered croutons turned this luxury item into one of the world's best dips. Contrast this with a $21 Chicken Grand-Mere and its flabby skin, overcooked flesh, undercooked potatoes and a sauce which can best be described as dirty.

A Salad Lyonnaise also exhibited the common inconsistency in one dish. The egg poached to perfection leaked yellow from its hidebound white with the slightest pressure from the fork. The lardons had been cooked to a slightly crunchy, but tender nibble. The frisee was as bitter as a Vikings Fan in February. What was missing? Acid. Without a well-made vinaigrette, the salty bacon, bitter lettuce, and creamy egg never gel. Sadly, this salad was one component away from perfection.

But there is much to like. Coarse pâté is served in a slab so generous that extra crostini will be required. Roasted beets are mashed with ricotta to create a ravioli filling rich with milk fat but still firm in texture. The dozen pillows of pasta are bathed in a pool of pepper-flecked, sage brown butter which should (and does) double as a spread for crusty french bread. Slow cooked rabbit is pulled from the bone and folded into a cream sauce which is then tossed with tagliatelle. A winter dish served in May, true, but also a reminder to return come December.

The wine list is not built for accolades, but is very good at delivering well-priced, quaffable wines which pair well with Meauxbar's bistro cuisine. The median price for a bottle is $40. A refreshing and palette-cleansing basil ice cream is sometimes offered on the house to those who opt for a glass of port instead of dessert. The wait staff is kind and convivial, but not to the point where professionalism is lost.

Despite a location on the extreme outskirts of the Vieux Carre and the absence of valet parking, Meauxbar has established a loyal clientele of repeat customers. (The Folk Singer has been thrice since March.)

The Rankings

Food - Par/Birdie. Strong cooking technique is regrettably overshadowed by flavors which either lack vibrancy or fall one ingredient short of excellence. But when it all comes together - as in the steak tartare and beet-ricotta ravioli - you realize the kitchen's full potential.

Wine/Bar/Service - Par/Birdie. The predominance of French wines matches the bistro-focused cuisine and offers selections to fit any budget. The wait staff is friendly, informative, and omnipresent (but not to the point of smothering). The small bar is serviceable and well stocked. We have said enough already about our favorite table.

Overall - Par/Birdie. Meauxbar has a certain sexiness about it. The quiet location across from Armstrong Park, soft spoken service, and stylish decor creates a Creole-Soho hybrid atmosphere. Flavors from the Far East inject novelty into French classics, but sometimes a single misstep downgrades an otherwise well executed dish. Success is there, you just need be fortunate enough to choose it from the menu.


The Folk Singer said...

Who are you? And what did you do with Rene & Peter?

Ann said...

Thanks for the review. I have been wanting to check this place out and was just recently reviewing their menu.