The resurrection of the historic Pontchartrain Hotel is a massive undertaking with several moving parts, but a key one fell into place this past week when the Besh Restaurant Group announced that Chris Lusk will serve as executive chef for the hotel and its restaurants.
Lusk had been chef de cuisine at Restaurant R’evolution since it opened in 2012. In his new post, he will oversee the return of the Caribbean Room, a stalwart of Creole dining from a generation ago that has been closed for many years.
Lusk also will direct the new versions of the Bayou Bar and the Silver Whistle coffee shop, two attractions from the hotel’s past, plus a new rooftop bar to be developed on the penthouse level.
“Paying homage to the rich heritage of the Pontchartrain Hotel and the Caribbean Room is an exciting opportunity,” Lusk said in a statement. “I am extremely honored to be a part of this project and look forward to cooking in such a historic kitchen.”
In November, local celebrity chef John Besh and his company announced a deal with the hotel’s owners, AJ Capital Partners, to provide food and beverage service at the 106-room hotel, which is now under renovation.
Located at 2031 St. Charles Ave., the refurbished hotel is expected to open sometime in 2016, though no target date has been announced.
On the culinary front, Lusk’s appointment means planning for the restaurants will enter a new phase.
In outlining plans for the Caribbean Room in particular, Besh has said he wants to return the restaurant to its past prominence.
“It was an important room, and it will be an important room again,” Besh said during an earlier interview. “It’s not about trying to bring history back, but to honor what the Caribbean Room gave us and be a good steward of that foundation.”
First opened in 1948, the Caribbean Room ranked among the most distinguished restaurants in the city, serving what was then considered a modern version of Creole cuisine.
Its chefs produced a roster of dishes that have since entered the Creole culinary lexicon, including trout Veronique, with a sauce of Hollandaise and grapes; shrimp Saki, broiled in-shell with lemon butter sauce; crabmeat Remick, baked in a ramekin with a spicy sauce; oysters en brochette; and the towering “mile high pie,” an ice cream pie with meringue and chocolate sauce.
Lusk, a native of Texas, has worked broadly across the industry, with stops in Dallas, Florida and New York, including time at famed chef Mario Batali’s Otto Enoteca. In New Orleans, he has worked with the Commander’s Palace branch of the Brennan family and was executive chef at Café Adelaide before joining celebrity chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto at Restaurant R’evolution.
While the Caribbean Room will be the marquee restaurant at the Pontchartrain Hotel, it won’t be the only draw at the redeveloped property.
The Silver Whistle coffee shop was known as a breakfast nook for local movers and shakers, where a large table often hosted morning meetings.
The Bayou Bar also has its own particular claim to fame. It was here in 1969 that local civic and business leaders met with NFL officials to sign the paperwork that created the New Orleans Saints. The new Bayou Bar will have a focus on beer and whiskey, a bar menu and a casual, tavern ambiance.
The hotel’s new rooftop bar, which has yet to be named, presents more of a blank slate, though it starts with a view looking out across the Mississippi River and the downtown skyline. The bar will focus on cocktails and sparkling wine, while the menu will have shared plates and light snacks.
The Pontchartrain Hotel was first opened in 1927. It was run for many years by Lysle Aschaffenburg and later by his son Albert, until the family sold it in 1987.
In 2014, it was purchased by the Chicago-based hotel investment firm AJ Capital Partners.
Cooper Manning, brother of NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning, is one of the local investors in the project, according to a release from AJ Capital Partners announcing the acquisition.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.