Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lüke - New Orleans

Even a successful restaurant has certain inherent limitations on its profitability. You can only squeeze so many butts into so many seats. You can only increase your prices by so much before you wander beyond whatever particular niche of the dining market you've captured. So for many - particularly in this era of celebrity chefdom - at some point there comes the urge to grow, which means adding additional venues.

There are at least a couple different approaches to such growth. Some restaurants take what I call the "clone and colonize" approach, bringing the same package to different regional or even international markets. Nobu has restaurants in nearly twenty different cities in a dozen different countries. Joel Robuchon (after basically retiring from cooking) has restaurants in Paris, London, Monaco, Hong Kong, Macao, Tokyo, New York and Las Vegas. A plethora of chefs have set up satellite offices in Vegas, and over the past couple years the influx of "invasive exotic species" has made its way to Miami as well. Even Thomas Keller has gone bi-coastal with Per Se in New York, plus Bouchons in Las Vegas and now Beverly Hills.

Other chefs stay closer to home, creating fiefdoms in their native territory. In Seattle, Tom Douglas has opened several restaurants all within a few blocks of his original flagship, Dahlia Lounge. Here in Miami, restaurateur Myles Chefetz has done much the same thing on the "SoFi" (South of Fifth Street) end of South Beach with Prime 112, Nemo, Shoji Sushi, Big Pink, and the latest addition, Prime Italian. Jonathan Eismann is looking to do the same in the Design District, where he recently opened PizzaVolante a block away from his flagship Pacific Time and will soon be opening Q and Fin right down the street. (Of course some chefs follow both approaches: Mario Batali has his chubby fingers in nine New York restaurants, three in Las Vegas, and a few in L.A. too).

Unlike the "clone and colonize" approach, which simply seeks to duplicate the same experience in a different venue, the "fiefdom" approach requires that there be something to distinguish one restaurant from another to reach different segments of the same geographic market. The easiest thing to do, particularly if you started with a high-end restaurant, is to do a lower-end, more budget-friendly place (note that David Chang did this in reverse, starting with Momofuku Noodle Bar and later opening the higher-end Ko); but then what? If you want to build an empire, the next step is to diversify the range of cuisines you offer.

That's what John Besh has done in New Orleans. Chef Besh's reputation was made at his Restaurant August, which I'd loosely characterize as contemporary French in style with a strong influence from the Creole and Cajun cuisines and native ingredients of Louisiana. Riding the waves of acclaim for August (to say nothing of other favorable attention including a strong appearance in Top Chef Masters), Chef Besh now runs no fewer than a half-dozen restaurants in New Orleans. They range from the inevitable steakhouse, to an Italian restaurant, Domenica, to the one we visited, Lüke.

Lüke is a brasserie with a curious Franco-Germanic (Alsatian?) tilt to it. The menu, picking up on some of the trends-du-jour (not necessarily a pejorative, I happen to be very much in favor of some of these), features lots of charcuterie and many varieties of pig parts. It also has typical brasserie items like moules & frites, roast chicken, steak & frites, and croque monsieur (or madame). The Germanic/Alsatian tilt manifests in dishes such as flamenküche (a/k/a tarte flambée),choucroûte, and an entirely unexpected matzo ball soup (!)

It's a somewhat rustic looking place with a bit of a turn-of-the-century feel, featuring a long bar with carved wooden pillars, tiled floors, a pressed tin ceiling, and fans operated by a pulley-and-belt system supposedly invented in the 1880s. We showed up early for our reservation and so started our meal at the bar, where we sampled their custom-brewed pilsner and some items from the raw bar.

The local P&J oysters were impeccably fresh and expertly shucked, and the Louisana shrimp were likewise fresh, sweet and tender. I generally prefer a smaller, tighter oyster like a kumomoto to a big sloppy one, but these were a happy medium - plump, firm and loaded with salty liquor. I might have hoped for something more adventurous to go along with them than cocktail sauce and horseradish sauce, but all they really needed was a squeeze of lemon anyway. Both the oysters and the shrimp seemed like a remarkable bargain at $7 and $11 per half-dozen, respectively.

Once it was time for our reservation we left the bar and moved to a somewhat small, cramped table. The most intriguing items on the menu (as is often the case) were the appetizers, and we (well, OK, mostly me, Mrs. F would point out) ordered several. The pâté of rabbit and duck livers came in a generous 1/2 pint mason jar - a luscious pinkish mousse, with just a whiff of truffle, topped with a thin cap of fat. Even Scrappy Coco couldn't have made this any more silky smooth. This was perhaps not quite as ethereally rich as a good foie gras mousse, but it was awfully close.

The hogs-head cheese (here going by the more impressive Germanic nomenclature "Badischer presskopf") was every bit as good as the liver pâté but went in an entirely different direction texturally. A rough chop, these three quenelles were only barely held together by the fat and gelatin of the intensely porky pigs-head meat, each topped with a little scatter of microgreens and some slivered radishes to cut the richness. Both charcuterie items were joined by the same accompaniments: cubes of pickled watermelon rind (loved these), slivers of pickled golden beets (?), a dollop of grainy mustard, and some sort of dark jam (muscadine?). The pâté came with buttery toasted croutons, while the head cheese came with some thinner crispy crackerbread. Our somewhat harried server was friendly and talkative, though he seemed more interested in telling us of his love of the Nip/Tuck show upon learning we were from Miami than he was with telling us what was on our plate.

In the interest of trying to reassemble an entire pig piece by piece, we also had the pied de cochon "croustillant," little balls of diced trotter meat with a fried bread crumb coating, paired with a sauce gribiche, providing a dose of pickle and caper to cut through the rich meat. These were also delightfully intensely porcine, and provided a great textural contrast between the creamy unctuous interior and the crispy exterior.

Perhaps our waiter seemed so harried because he knew that the rest of our meal, which we had asked to follow these items as appetizers, was nonetheless due to arrive only five minutes later. We had quite a juggling act trying to make room for another two plates. Being the dainty eater that I am, I just had a salad.

OK, so it was a salad with lardons of Allen Benton's bacon, a poached "yard egg," and crispy pig ear, but it was a salad. Though the menu promised a bit of a New Orleans twist with chicory and a creole mustard dressing, this came off like a pretty prototypical, and somewhat inartful, frisée lardon. The crispy pig ear would normally be a highly welcome addition, but these were oddly battered beyond recognition (I guess some people would think that's a good thing, though not, it seems to me, people who are purposefully ordering the item with the pig's ears). At least the reconstructed pig was nearly complete. Mrs. F's burger, topped with more of that Allen Benton's bacon, Emmenthaler cheese and caramelized onions, was sadly overcooked well beyond the medium requested and oddly smoky tasting.

Though we were seeking variety rather than value, the dinner menu does offer a list of daily specials that seems like an awfully good deal. $23 gets you soup, dessert, and a choice of entrées that from day to day might be blanquette of veal cheeks, duck cassoulet, whole roasted cochon de lait, and others. That seems like a very budget-friendly entry point to John Besh's cooking, and in fact pretty much everything we had was very reasonably priced, with all the starters being $10 or under. And indeed we would have had a near perfect meal if we had stuck with just the raw bar and charcuterie items. That - along with, perhaps, one of the daily specials - may very well be the plan the next time we get to visit this particular vassalage of Chef Besh's fiefdom.

333 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70130

Lüke on Urbanspoon


  1. You forgot La Provence on the north shore complete with it's own garden and farm animals (Chef Rene Bajeux, who is a complete badass of a chef, was head chef for a minute there).
    Although I've never experienced his cuisine, I'm always intrigued by what Besh is doing. He seems to successfully weave modern nuances into 'safe' regional fare. My mother mails the local newspapers 'Restaurant Section' to me every year when it's released, and I am always dissappointed to thumb through the pictures to see the same stuff being done that was happening 20 years ago. Thank God there are a couple of chefs in that city who are keeping a modern tone on their menus. Not that the traditional cuisine isn't good, but as with all things... balance.

  2. You're right, the full line-up is: August, Besh Steak, Luke, La Provence (Provençal), Domenica (Italian), and The American Sector (southern comfort food, in the WWII Museum).

    And I agree, what Besh seems to have a knack for is to delicately incorporate the contemporary with the classic, and to be able to veer in different directions while still keeping things tied to home.

    One of the things I find interesting is how the current "cult of personality" around celebrity chefs interacts with the fiefdom expansion model. Once you've made your bones as an "x" chef (whether "x" = French, Creole, Italian, whatever), how do you then spin that into something other than just an "x" restaurant?

    I'm amazed at how effectively Batali has done this. Here was a guy who was known entirely for his devotion to regional Italian cooking, and now he's doing shows, cookbooks and restaurants dedicated to Spanish cuisine (Casa Mono), opening gastropubs, etc., all mostly incredibly successful.

    We actually made a point of focusing on what's new in New Orleans, rather than doing any of the old guard places. It's been about 8 years since we'd last been (way pre-Katrina), and while it's genuinely comforting to know that places like Galatoire's, Antoine's, etc. never change (it really is - I love that you can eat there pretty much the same way you would have 50 years ago, and I hope you can do so 50 years from now too), we wanted to see something different.

    As awful as it was, and as painful as the recovery has been, I actually think Katrina provided something of an opportunity to shift from the old guard and what we tried this trip was certainly more varied and less bound to traditional New Orleans cooking than what we've seen on prior visits (or, like Cochon, is playing up different traditions). I recall going to Brigtsen's last time we were there, which everyone was touting as "contemporary," and wondering what all the fuss was about. Good food, but even eight years ago it hardly seemed very contemporary.