It’s the end of my New Orleans trip, but not before one final blow-out meal. For our last night, a small group of us snagged reservations for John Besh’s restaurant August. You might have seen Besh on Top Chef, where he’s been on TC Masters as well as guest judging on the most recent season of all-stars. Both chef and restaurant have won a slew of awards, so I was excited to end with an haute cuisine version of Louisiana food. The restaurant space is lovely: in a nineteenth-century downtown building, the main dining room has high ceilings, dark wood fittings, and gorgeous beaux-arts chandeliers. We were seated in a smaller room, which was equally elegant but with slightly challenging acoustics.
Given that this was our last hurrah in New Orleans, we opted for the six-course dégustation menu. I never usually have tasting menus in fancy restaurants but I was easily persuaded to push the boat out this time. However, none of us wanted to drink as much as the wine pairing would demand, so we asked the sommelier to help us find a white that would provide a reasonable background to all the dishes. She was wonderful, just what you want from a fine dining experience. She opened bottles and told us not to worry if we didn’t like them. In the end, we found a wine we all approved, although you can tell I’m not the group’s expert in this area, as I have no idea what it actually was. Let’s be honest, they could have opened a bottle of Bulgarian country white and I’d have been just as happy.
The meal started with an amouse bouche. Since I don’t eat eggs, I received something different from the others at the table. They all had some truffled custardy thing served in an egg cup that had them swooning. By contrast, I had this grapefruit and strawberry salad, which was nice enough, but I felt a bit left out of the moans of delight the others were emitting.
The first course proper was a blue crab salad with blood orange, pickled baby vegetables and Korean pepper vinaigrette. This was lovely and fresh, the crab and citrus offering an almost Asian flavour combination, especially with the lightly pickled vegetables. I couldn’t really taste the Korean pepper, but thin slivers of spring onion on top of the dish gave a slight kick.
Next up was a ravioli filled with salt-cod brandade, in a saffron broth, topped with an olive tapenade. One of my tablemates commented on the bravery of dumping an assertive tapenade onto such a delicate dish, and I agree that the balance is unexpected. You’d expect the saffron to be overwhelmed, and the brandade too, but somehow all the elements combined beautifully. That said, I felt both the fish and the saffron could have been more strongly flavoured – not to counter the olives but just as interesting features in their own right. This was a very restrained pasta.
The soup course was gumbo z’herb, a traditional Lenten gumbo featuring greens instead of meat. The dish is not always strictly vegetarian, just oriented around greens, and this version featured a smoked turkey neck consommé and a pile of greens studded with delicious andouille sausage. Everyone else’s also came with a poached egg, which they seemed to like. However, I enjoyed the cleanness of the consommé and green leaves.
Next up was the dish that sold me on the tasting menu in the first place: spiced pork belly with crawfish tails, local strawberries, coriander and golden beets. Everything on that description could have been designed as Lemur bait. Pork! Seafood! Fruit! Coriander! Beets! The dish looked gorgeous; certainly it was the prettiest of the night. And it was tasty – the bright green cilantro sauce on the bottom of the pork was herby and flavourful, and the elements all harmonised. But here is where I think I am essentially unsuited to very high-end food (and I’ve had the same experience in Topolobampo and other expensive restaurants): I want pork belly to be richly flavoured, caramelised, succulent, and long-cooked in spices. I want it to feel unctuous and fatty in my mouth. Elegant thin rectangles of pressed meat are just not what passes through my mind when I conjure a fantasy pork belly. And while the menu promised spicing, I found the flavour to be timid. I’m sure it’s meant to be that way. It was refined and restrained, but I’d probably have enjoyed the country Louisiana dish it was inspired by more.
The final savoury course was saddle of lamb with crispy lamb sweetbreads, baby turnips and pied du mouton mushrooms. This one was very much a dish of two halves for me. The lamb itself was served rare to the point of being basically raw. Now I’m not a loutish American diner who wants meat overcooked, I’m really not. I order my meat medium rare yadda yadda yadda. But this was well under medium rare, totally red, not pink at all. (It’s a bit dark in the picture but I think you can kind of see how little it’s cooked.) I will say that everyone else at the table thought it was just fine, so maybe I’m being difficult but I honestly couldn’t have eaten it. So back it went to be more cooked, and once there was a little colour to the poor beast, it was a soft and lovely bit of lamb.
The real highlight, though, was the bottom half of the dish. The sweetbreads were fantastic, as were the mushrooms, turnips, baby onions and microgreens and the herbal dressing they were all bathed in. The combination reminded me of the fried rabbit livers at Cochon, so I am thinking this is a common Louisiana technique. I was enjoying the sweetbreads so much I almost abandoned the raw lamb to its fate, although it was ultimately good to reunite the various parts of the animal.
Our final dish was a crème au chocolat with white chocolate crisps, cocoa meringues and hazelnuts. Given the spectacular desserts I’ve seen in New Orleans, this one felt like a bit of an afterthought. It was nice – if you like chocolate pudding, you’d like this – but not especially revelatory. I’d have preferred one of the tarts or pies I’ve seen on other menus, or something featuring local fruit.
Overall, it was a fantastic night with good friends, and we all felt suitably pampered by the attentive but low key service. The food was never less than original, refined and tasty and at its best (gumbo, sweetbreads), it was spectacularly good. Ultimately, if I was a little disappointed, it was probably more about my own tastes than the fault of the restaurant. Part of me wanted to be eating crawfish and hot sauce with my fingers. I guess I’ll never really be a sophisticate.