Carnival has come and gone, but Thursday is Valentine’s Day, and the city of New Orleans is once again humming with the vibrations of love, romance, wine and food.
Restaurants from the Marigny to Metairie are pulling out all the stops for couples of all ages hoping to share a few cocktails, a sensuous meal and a good bottle of vino and let a decadent menu inspire their mood.
For one Crescent City restaurant, a love affair with the neighborhood around it has been brewing for the better part of 2½ years.
It didn’t take long for Mid-City residents to fall for Rue 127, a cozy, 40-seat New American bistro nestled snugly on North Carrollton Avenue between Bienville and Canal streets.
Chef and owner Ray Gruezke, a New Orleans native who cut his chops, so to speak, at the Culinary Institute of America in New York as well as at Commander’s Palace, among other places, took a look at Mid-City back in 2010 and saw a great neighborhood that somehow, even in restaurant-obsessed New Orleans, seemed to lack great dining options.
“I was bored after work one day, searching Craigslist, and I just found this place,” said Gruezke, noting the serendipitous beginnings of his restaurant. “About a month later I offered to buy the space, and here we are today, two years later.”
With an easy demeanor and obvious skill, the chef had no trouble speaking candidly about his thoughts on Big Easy dining — and Rue 127’s place in it — while simultaneously plating salads, sautéing mussels and garnishing entrees for a bustling dinner service.
“I wanted to do whatever I wanted to,” he laughed, speaking of his restaurant concept. “We liked the space, and we liked the size, which was 30 seats at the time. But the biggest thing was that we found something that was lacking in this neighborhood at the time.”
“Now, there are more casual fine dining options in Mid-City,” he said, such as Toups Meatery, Serendipity and other newcomers, “but back then, there really wasn’t anything really like what we wanted to do, which was bistro food. It seemed perfect for this part of town. The menu kind of wrote itself from there.”
Gruezke’s classic bistro, with its diminutive open kitchen and a skeleton crew of cooks, hits all the high notes of larger, more intimidating downtown eateries, in an intimate, comfortable room perfect for date-night and casual lunch alike.
The menu rotates often, according to the seasons and the availability of local ingredients, not to mention the whims of the chef and his staff.
Gruezke started a recent meal with a simple salad of Bibb lettuce, ricotta salata cheese and candied pecans.
“In a lot of restaurants, it’s all about, ‘You have to have this, and you have to have that ...’ And after a while, your menu is filled with ‘have-to-haves,’ and there’s not much room for a chef to have any fun,” he said.
“So I try not to include too many of those on the menu. But at the same time, I do like having at least one nice salad with a simple vinaigrette. It’s easy to eat, light, and a good way to start a meal.”
Next came a pasta dish, not uncommon in New Orleans, given our storied Italian heritage. However, this one is far from the red sauce and meatballs of southern Italy.
A classic spaghetti con vongole, or spaghetti with clams, dressed simply with a sauce of white wine, olive oil, garlic and chili flakes, reminds one immediately of a Tuscan countryside trattoria.
One “have-to-have” dish on Gruezke’s menu is the chargrilled double-cut Duroc pork chop, with corn coushe coushe, Jack Daniel’s (“I love cooking with booze,” noted the chef) under a generous heap of crispy fried onions.
Upon asking my server if I was the first one to divide the chop between the two bones and finish off every savory scrap of meat using my hands instead of utensils, she replied, “Nope. Everyone does that.”
Two other noteworthy entrees are Rue 127’s confit duck legs, which are salt-cured, cooked over low heat for 14 hours, then crisped up on the grill, as well as a sensational pan-roasted chicken, which arrives with a small, individual cast-iron crock of macaroni and cheese that will make you more than feel at home.
Rue 127 has become a treasured spot for Mid-City residents, and its popularity has resulted in longer waits and more elusive reservations during desirable hours.
The reasons were clear, right down to the dessert of deconstructed s’mores (double chocolate brownies, bruléed marshmallows, graham cracker dust and chocolate sorbet) and a basket of the bite-sized, deep-fried doughnuts with a trio of dipping sauces.
“We’re not trying to be the biggest thing since sliced bread,” Gruezke said. “But I like my little corner of the world, so I’m just going to stay here and keep cooking what I love, for this fantastic neighborhood.”
Rue 127, 127 N. Carrollton Ave. in Mid-City. Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m. Telephone: (504) 483-1571.