Nightfall arrives early, the Christmas lights are shining, the streetcars are decked in garlands and the sound of the miniature train whistle drifts out of City Park. These seasonal cues are enough to stir cravings for a cozy setting and hearty comfort food, no matter what the thermometer says in our inscrutably subtropical city.
That’s why, on a few far-from-frigid recent evenings, I found myself returning to Rue 127 to taste around a new menu of wintry flavors composed with contemporary style and some unexpected turns.
One dinner, for instance, started with a salad of mulled pears ($9), the wine-stained fruit joined by arugula spiked with bacon and candied pecans. Blue cheese seems like a natural addition, but in this case, it was rendered as shiny white dollops of effervescent foam that drape the palate with a strong, sour savor for just a vanishing instant.
The burly rabbit potpie ($28) that followed was thickly capped with sage-flecked cornbread, instead of the expected puff pastry. Dessert was pumpkin trifle ($8), a layering of moist gingerbread cake, pumpkin mousse and maple-infused cream that filled a snifter glass the size of a piano man’s tip jar like a warmly spiced sundae.
These are new dishes at Rue 127, though they follow a style that’s become a signature of chef Ray Gruezke since he opened this Mid-City restaurant in 2010. The New Orleans native has a knack for turning broadly familiar American bistro standards into unique standouts, with deft, often understated touches.
His double-cut pork chop ($27) has become something of a Rue 127 standard in its own right. It leaves the grill with dark, aromatic lines of sizzled fat at the edges and sinks just a bit into a soft bed of coush coush, the creamy Cajun cornmeal staple cut with a trickle of whiskey. Served year-round, these days, it’s surrounded by dishes of comparably tuned flavors.
The smoked duck breast ($25) is another new example. Thick slices with truly crunchy, crackling-crisp skin and velvety rare centers were interspersed with hunks of pork sausage (a little peppery, mildly smoky, altogether pretty polite) and mustard greens so sharp they worked like a chewy horseradish sauce between the two meats. The lamb shank ($26), meanwhile, fell easily into slivers and chunks over a mottled mix of butter beans and field peas enlivened by the bitter crunch of broccoli rabe.
Some of the seafood dishes seem to follow a different script. Gruezke’s latest version of steamed mussels ($11) have a vividly spicy, tropical aspect, with loads of ginger on the front end of a coconut milk broth and the bite of chiles at the back. And the scallops ($27) — sweet, rare within and seared to an edge — felt like a summer holdover with grape tomatoes and pea shoots over the top and grilled eggplant underneath.
Rue 127 is a tiny restaurant in a former shotgun house, now with a glassed-in kitchen, a front patio and an enclosed side porch for a very narrow second dining room where it may feel like you’ve been seated at the kids table during a crowded family meal. Still, this restaurant’s small size is a big part of its appeal. The attention to detail across this tight ship is evident, and the cottage ambiance makes the main dining room and the trim, five-seat bar feel warmly snug.
The physical confines put no obvious constraint on the menu, which has grown in the past few years both in ambition and in actual size, adding more pieces and parts as specials and one-off dishes have evolved into permanence. There’s now a whole list of bite-sized “snacks” that usually involve the fryer and some kitchen horseplay, like a small chunk of foie gras ($3) that oozes from a panko crust. The restaurant also finds room for various rosters of drinks, including dessert cocktails and even a subcategory of coffee cocktails. During football season, specialty drinks are all named for saints, though not those of gridiron fame. The Saint Rose of Lima, for instance, mixes Peruvian pisco brandy with a dark, rum-based liqueur and ginger ale for a highly exotic punch redolent of winter spices.
Rue 127 is participating in reveillon for the first time this year, and some of its new winter dishes are part of this special holiday prix fixe meal (four courses, $42-$53). That’s enough to get some of us rooting for a cold front all on its own.