Some restaurants are reminiscent of a new pop band in concert. Everyone sings along and cheers wildly during the few hits and then claps politely for the rest of the set. That tasty appetizer? No. 1 with a bullet. The entrees and the desserts, however, will never crack the Top 40.
Other restaurants are like listening to a jukebox full of songs that you first heard in high school. Sure, a more interesting meal could be found a few doors down, but this place is familiar and brings a smile.
But then there's eating at Cobalt, which has experienced a renaissance under new chef David English. Eating at Cobalt is like listening to a symphony that with each movement builds to a crescendo; every course is more impressive than the last, moving steadily from excellent appetizers to dazzling desserts.
A cocktail at Cobalt's bar provides an energetic first movement before dinner. When the sun is shining and the room is empty, Cobalt's bar can feel like Ikea Gone Wild. Blue columns explode onto the ceiling in a scattering of tiles. A glowing collection of plastic gems sits atop a metal fence. In the evening, however, the crowds of well-dressed CBD professionals along with the brightly colored walls and cryptic messages ("No blue food") projected onto the ceiling give Cobalt's bar the energy of nightclub.
The second movement begins at the back of the bar. Just past the host stand is a quiet dining room. The decor here is more subdued, making it clear that the focus will now be on the food. Flash gives way to substance.
Chef English cooks like an abstract painter. His dishes pull together a full palette of concentrated flavors and unexpected textures. At the same time, his use of familiar Louisiana ingredients -- grits, tasso, Gulf shrimp -- grounds English's food in the local culinary tradition.
A rich salad of pears, dried figs and blue cheese is balanced by a touch of bitterness from endives. The sticks of grit fries, served with classic barbecue shrimp, are coated in a crisp tempura-like batter but inside have the surprising soft texture of grits. The ravioli are flat sheets of pasta folded like an envelope around a filling of concentrated corn cream. When I cut into the ravioli, the rich cream exploded across the plate.
The intensity of the meal increases with the entrees. It's hard to fault the meatier dishes on Cobalt's menu. Short ribs were tender and the white corn maque choux on the side was moistened with the same concentrated corn cream that filled the ravioli. An excellent side of green beans, tasso and crawfish tossed in a Creole mustard dressing accompanied a thick pork chop. These entrees, however, aren't so different from what could be found at other top restaurants in New Orleans.
Chef English is a master of nuance, and the more delicate fish and seafood entrees offer a better platform for his inventiveness. A pristine fillet of seared red grouper was surrounded by vibrant cherry tomatoes tossed in a light vinaigrette. The dish was like an optical illusion. How could a handful of simple ingredients create such a complex taste? Plump scallops rested on an intense puree of cauliflower. A dark pink salmon was surrounded by a sculptural arrangement of flavors. A sprinkle of salt coated the top of the salmon fillet. Underneath were leeks and potatoes. The salmon was flanked on each side by a delicious mixture of crab and citrus.
Pastry chef Christy Phebus creates the grand finale to a meal at Cobalt. Her desserts are bold and playful, echoing English's cooking and fearlessly incorporating flavors not often seen on the dessert menu. A classic creme brulee arrives with a chocolate cookie spiced with cayenne pepper. When my fork cut into a mango empanada, mango puree burst across the plate, reminding me of the corn ravioli from earlier in the evening. A light mascarpone cheesecake includes slices of sour grapefruit on the side and a twirl of candied citrus peel on top. An unusual frozen buttermilk lemon souffle tastes like a cross between ice cream and custard with a trace of tartness from the buttermilk.
In several nearly flawless concertos at Cobalt, there were a few false notes. Once at lunch, when the menu mixes hearty sandwiches with select appetizers and entrees from dinner, I raved to a friend about the twisted buns full of rosemary and topped with salt. They are like light, airy pretzels, I said. When the bread basket arrived, I could tell with a glance that the rolls were stale and hard. A few days later, my table was served a bowl of bad mussels that should have gone into the trash instead of the dining room. Both experiences were out of character with everything else I experienced at Cobalt. Such oversights are unworthy of a restaurant of Cobalt's caliber.
The menu changed once during my visits to Cobalt. Two of the new items, the salmon and the frozen lemon souffle, were the best dishes I ate at Cobalt. Will each new menu bring even more impressive creations from English and Phebus? Could it be that these two masterful performers are just warming up?