Arrived at New Orleans yesterday for the 2nd annual Workshop on Informatic Phenomena at Tulane, organized by Mike Mislove of the Math department and Keye Martin of the Naval Research Lab. What with a half-hour wait for the Airport shuttle, and a slow ride past the Superdome as the Saints-Jets game was letting out, and some time to decompress and check the jazz listings before going out for dinner, it was around 8 before I was ready to eat, and most of my favorite New Orleans restaurants (Bayona, Herbsaint, Stella!, Lilettte) are closed on Sunday. Rather than the old standby of oysters and a glass of white wine at the circular bar in the Bourbon hotel, I decided to check out Bacco, on Chartres a few blocks into the French Quarter from Canal, as it had looked promising from the outside on earlier visits, and the menu looked interesting online. It's run by Ralph Brennan of the famed New Orleans restaurant family (Dickie Brennan's, Mr. B's Bistro, etc.., etc..., etc...). Although I've enjoyed Mr. B's in particular, this gave me slight pause, as I'd generally expect the ne plus ultra in foodie bliss to be found in a place owned by a lone chef pursuing his or her passion, rather than associated with such a dynasty. And I've seen Bacco advertised in the New Orleans airport, another question mark. But I wasn't necessarily looking for the ne plus ultra, I was looking for an enjoyable low key dinner.
Perhaps it was a mistake to mention I was walking over from a hotel, and call from an out-of-state cell phone, for despite my being fairly smartly dressed, and the warm and elegant front rooms with windows on Chartres street appearing far from full, I was put in a less-elegant though OK back room with the trainers and tee-shirt crowd. An artichoke, oyster, and cream soup was excellent and different from expectations---smooth and buttery, but larded with bits of fresh artichoke and greens. The New Orleans/Brennans' touch was definitely showing in the richness and smoothness of this dish. I wouldn't want to eat food this rich every day, but it was a treat. It went well with a glass of 2006 Maso Canali Pinot Grigio from the Trentino region of Italy---an honest, fresh, grapey, not-overblown glass of wine with some finesse and a restrained fruitiness and perhaps a hint of bitter almond. Possibly this might have gone better with my next course, and the 2007 Nozzole Chardonnay "Le Bruniche" from Tuscany that I ordered to go with it, or the Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay (usually reliable, if not always exciting, with hints of butteriness, yeastiness, and lemon, and good balance) that was also on offer, would have gone better with the soup. The ciabatta bread was tasty, not too soft, although very fresh plain butter would have been better than the lightly garlicked butter they served with it.
The Chardonnay turned out to also be a nice example of Italian white winemaking. A bit racy, maybe even slightly grassy, it, like the Pinot Grigio, avoided the overbearing, high-alcohol impression that's all too common in lower-end Chardonnays with some pretensions, and had a little complexity to boot. (I didn't boot it, though.) I had it with a grilled black drum (that's a fish...) on a bed of risotto flecked with wild rice, the whole topped with thinly cut caramelized onions (or something from the onion family, anyway) and balsamic half-grapes. The grapes were a highlight, little sweet-and-sour flavor packets bursting in the mouth. The fish was good, done just right, and very mild. The dish was good overall but not a knockout. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was getting toward closing time on a Sunday and the kitchen was ready to close, the risotto was definitely underdone (no, I am not one for mushy risotto). The rice was tasty and large-grained, probably a high-end Louisiana risotto rice, but although edible, a bit too crunchy. It's possible---but not certain---that with perfectly-cooked rice, the elements of the dish would have melded into something sublime, but in the event, that didn't happen. Still a tasty dish. (Incidentally, the waitress' top dish recommendations had been the Maine lobster and gulf shrimp ravioli with champagne butter sauce and caviar, and the Bacco shrimp, so maybe I'll try one of those next time.)
While pondering whether to add unneeded calories by having dessert, I was offered dessert on the house. I had a chocolate panna cotta, with a raspberry sauce (or was it a coulis? Is there a difference?) and a bit of chocolate sauce, topped with a large curl of thin dark chocolate. I've had quite a few panna cottas in Italy, and the flavor and texture can vary quite a bit. This one was excellent, on the firm side but still light enough, with a slightly granular texture that for me was not a flaw, but added interest. Good strong chocolate flavor, but restrained enough to be able to taste the creaminess; the chocolate curl on top was high-quality and the raspberry sauce fresh-tasting. With decaf coffee (black), a perfect end, and a dessert I'd come back for.
The service was friendly, and very efficient. One of the waitresses topped up my water glass several times when it was nearly full, but that was the only slight misstep and it certainly beat letting it run dry.
Overall, the food blended traditional Italian elements with a bit of New Orleans influence and international trendy touches successfully. I didn't think it was quite on the level of Bayona, Stella!, or Lilette, but I'd go back, and ask for a table in one of the front rooms or---if one can dine there as well as drink---just eat at the large semicircular bar which, in an open, well-lit but warm room, looked comfortable. The food balanced tradition and imagination well, the style was a bit different than expected (more Creole-influenced smoothness and unctuousness) but in an enjoyable way; the wines available by the glass were interesting and well-chosen.
Update: The 310 Chartres street location in the French quarter closed in January 2011; the owner, Ralph Brennan, hopes to reopen Bacco somewhere else in 2011, but I'm not sure if it will happen, or has happened.