MiLa: Culinary Crossroads_lowres

Chefs Slade and Allison Vines-Rushing opened MiLa downtown with many of the popular dishes from their former Northshore restaurant.

There's something like a culinary travelogue in the tale of Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing, the chef/owners and married couple behind MiLa. Their gorgeously designed space in the newly renovated Pierre Marquette Hotel is worth some ink, too. But the most important thing to know about MiLa can be summed up in three words: Get the oysters. That's the 'oysters Rockefeller deconstructed." If the food geek/philosophy term 'deconstructed" gives you pause, just ignore it. You probably shouldn't even think of the term Rockefeller, since this creation has little to do with the classic Creole baked-oyster dish. But it has everything to do with utterly divine flavor.

Beautifully prepared and presented, the dish is an exercise in timing and restraint built around five poached oysters. Each delicate bundle has a taut texture like the skin of a balloon that just aches to burst, which it does, spreading a sweet marine flavor across your palate, followed quickly by the salty crunch from a slim chip of bacon, the earthiness of cooked spinach, the mellow bitterness of licorice and then a wash of ephemeral butter foam that seems barely there yet still gilds the whole thing.

This is a show-stopping dish, and at $14 it is also very pricey, though it is not even the most expensive appetizer on MiLa's menu. Most of all, it is an excellent representation of the kind of cuisine the chefs can create " something with local roots, supremely gussied up and treated to exacting technique.

The name MiLa (pronounced 'me-la") is a combination of the words Mississippi and Louisiana, the home states of Slade and Allison, respectively. Both started their careers in New Orleans kitchens, and they met each other while working for chef Gerard Maras at his long-gone restaurant Gerard's Downtown. They moved to New York, and Allison quickly earned high praise for her work at Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar, where she came up with the oysters Rockefeller deconstructed. She won the James Beard Rising Chef of the Year award in 2004. The following year, the young couple moved back to Louisiana to start their own restaurant. They opened Longbranch in Abita Springs just in time for Hurricane Katrina to mangle the region. The restaurant closed last summer, but within months the chefs began making plans for their second local venture. In November, they opened MiLa in the hotel restaurant space that was Rene Bistrot before Katrina.

And if you didn't know any of that, a glance at the menu should quickly put you on notice that you are in for a memorable meal. If you've ever wondered what lobster would taste like in New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp sauce, this is the place to try it out. The sauce looks like the familiar butter and black pepper emulsion, but reveals a heavy dose of garlic and a hot kick of cayenne. Another good appetizer is a serving of firm, toothsome sweetbreads. They are paired with truly extraordinary grits, suffused with musky flecks of truffle and bits of sweet, smoky pork, like a barbecue version of tasso ham.

One of MiLa's marquee entrees is described forthrightly as 'pig cheeks and langoustines." It is a bold dish, but also the only selection I've tried that I wouldn't order again. The single langoustine " a delicate, princely European cousin to the lobster " proved to be a tiny, anemic thing and it didn't taste much different from your average boiled shrimp. The pork component had rich, dark meat that was tender like a roast and was served bathing in a loose, salty broth with greens. As a stew it was a reasonably good dish, but overall it didn't live up to the billing.

Later meals more than put the ledger in balance. The venison tenderloin offered as a special one night was probably the best, most deftly prepared rendition of this tricky meat I've had in New Orleans. Sliced into large disks, the meat was ringed with a peppery crust and left exceedingly rare and juicy in the center. Sauced with a red-wine jus, the venison had an intense flavor that didn't so much linger as deepen and develop with each bite. Another special was a departure from the menu's roasted duck, this time done rotisserie style and caked with a thick, black blend of spices and wine reduction. A grouper was roasted perfectly with a delicate crust and had a very good sauce with the nose-punch power of creamy wasabi.

You can order a $14 hamburger at lunch, as apparently hotel restaurants are now required to provide, or you could spend $1 more and get the braised duck-leg po-boy. A slather of mustard sweetened with satsuma enhanced the firm, distinct duck meat nicely without bogging down the bread.

The restaurant space has been thoroughly renovated since the storm, but diners who remember Rene Bistrot can probably still find their way around by intuition. The décor is modern and stylish without being cold. A good portion of the seats are deep, heavily padded banquettes that make romantic nooks, tucked away from the bustle of the dining room.

Service is in step with the expectations of the pricing, which is very high. If you can afford to eat here often, you probably will. Otherwise, MiLa makes an excellent destination for a special night out.