Peristyle has for years held the lonely job of covering fine dining on Rampart Street, the French Quarter's potentially grand, mystifyingly neglected northern boundary. But at the other end of the same block, it has more recently been joined in the effort by Meauxbar Bistro.
A flourish of bright Caribbean yellow on the outside, deco retro-stylish on the inside, Meauxbar can be either an upscale spin on the neighborhood joint serving burgers and pasta and fish and chips, or a fine-dining destination for traditional French bistro cuisine, a clutch of offbeat, hybrid dishes and some spectacular ice cream.
The restaurant is a homecoming commitment of sorts from chef/owner Matthew Guidry, a native of Abbeville who attended culinary school in New York and stayed up North for 20 years. During that time, he and partner James Conte transformed a neighborhood diner in the Hamptons into the Paradise CafŽ, which they sold in 2000 to move back to Louisiana. They found a house in the French Quarter and late in 2003 opened Meauxbar Bistro two blocks away -- naming the restaurant for the little Cajun hamlet of Meaux, from which Guidry's family hails.
And that's just about all the Cajun reference you'll find here, besides some crawfish stuffing that fills a dumpling appetizer. Rather, the two things that reveal this is a New Orleans restaurant are the provenance of the seafood and the clientele, which both seem to come from nearby. The dishes do not, and most of the best claim French heritage.
The trout Grenobloise is the best of seven seafood entrees currently on the menu. It is a whole trout -- sans head and tail -- dredged in salt and pepper and pan fried in butter then finished in the oven with a sauce made from more butter, the fruit of a lemon and herbs. To the local palate it will taste like a lighter, fresher version of meuniere and the sauce makes the tender meat of the fish sing with flavor.
The steak frites dish is another classic, done here with a generous 10-oz. New York strip drizzled with tarragon butter. There is the option (highly recommended) to add a portion of sauce au poivre, a rich and snappy concoction of cracked peppercorns, Creole mustard and heavy cream with a dose of cognac. It proved a luxurious addition to my perfectly medium-rare steak and was an outrageously good condiment for the haystack of crispy, thin fries piled next to it. Another good accoutrement for the steak is the little ramekin of sweet onion marmalade, an off-the-menu treat that normally comes with the duck confit -- itself crispy skinned and redolent in its own fat.
Another star entrŽe is the coconut shrimp, which redeems a dish the chain restaurants have done to death. But Meauxbar's version shows why sweet, shredded coconut and plump Gulf shrimp were a good combination to begin with, and does the dish one better with a spicy red curry sauce and jasmine rice that had me all but licking the plate.
The other shrimp dish -- a row of big ones steamed with vanilla curry oil -- was a disappointment, coming off bland and tinged with a faint metallic taste. A better choice for a light dish is the tilapia, cooked with ginger, coconut milk and a touch of curry in parchment paper.
The appetizers are fine but lack the excitement of the entrees, which is precisely the reverse of the problem a lot of other restaurants encounter. The thinly sliced raw tuna served carpaccio style is an exception, and when it gets a little cooler I'll give the French onion soup a shot. For now, though, the best appetizer is had by requesting a half order of the ravioli entree, made with almost translucent wonton wrappers stuffed with spinach and ricotta and covered in a warm, earthy sage butter sauce.
There is no question about what to have for dessert. Guidry and his kitchen staff make a variety of ice creams and sorbets, and all the ones I tried were wonderful. Basil ice cream tasted just like the herbaceous essence of basil held in sweet, creamy, ice-cold scoops and proved a delightful palate cleanser and dessert all in one. The same is true for an exceptionally crisp, clean-tasting green tea sorbet. The Belgian chocolate, on the other hand, is pure, mouth-coating dark chocolate indulgence and a pistachio variety is dense and fudgy with the atomized nuts blended into the rich custard.
There are other house-made desserts, like warm chocolate cake and a pear tarte with nice, freshly whipped cream, but the ice cream steals the final act of the show at Meauxbar. In fact, if Guidry and Conte are ever interested in a sideline business, an ice cream parlor with these recipes would be fantastic. And if a few more places of Meauxbar's caliber invest in Rampart Street in the years to come, this potential-laden corridor could be just the place for it.