Review: Criollo_lowres

Criollo's "Oysters and Pearls" features raw oysters over mirliton slaw topped with tapioca and caviar.

A more spacious, livelier Carousel Bar & Lounge was among the most noted changes at the Hotel Monteleone after a recent renovation of the historic French Quarter property. But beyond the slowly revolving bar, the hotel's restaurant has taken its own new turn.

  What was the Hunt Room Grill, a dark, almost brooding den, has become Criollo, a modern Creole restaurant with an open kitchen, smooth, professional service and a bright design that flows in from the landmark bar.

  Criollo opened last year, but its debut was staggered and confusing. The initial plan for a three-meal schedule was abruptly reduced to just breakfast, with lunch and dinner to be added at later intervals, and that's the last many of us heard of the place. As it turns out, chef Joseph Maynard has been quietly working up an impressively charismatic contemporary menu.

  Maynard takes inspiration for his Oysters and Pearls appetizer from a dish of the same name at chef Thomas Keller's renowned California restaurant The French Laundry, but his interpretation is original and, frankly, stunning. Icy raw oysters on the half shell are served over the sweet crunch of mirliton slaw laced with crabmeat and there are soft orbs of tapioca rolled in Crystal hot sauce and salty black caviar on top.

  It's the pinnacle of a menu that can seem uneven, but there are other high points. You might expect a massive $40 veal chop for the expense account diner at a hotel restaurant, but I wasn't expecting one so deftly done, nor with morel mushrooms soaking up whiskey-spiked demi-glace. Grouper was speckled with black pepper and grill char and, at lunch, a citrus-strewn salad of jicama and arugula balanced sliced, ruggedly paneed chicken.

  Many dishes are more Caribbean Creole than French Creole, and that accounts for some of their verve as well as many of their pitfalls. I loved the chip-crisp edge to the Perdido Pass snapper, though its cool, slightly sweet pepper puree had a texture disturbingly close to baby food. At least that part was easy to avoid. There was no easy fix for the Foie Gras Tropical, which was bogged down by a thick, too tart base of mango and pomegranate.

  It was beautifully presented though, which is the rule for this meticulous kitchen. A timbale of avocado, crabmeat and shrimp is particularly photogenic, and also delicious with a spicy coulis to enliven its cool richness. Desserts are similarly sculpted, a common feature at hotel restaurants that can maintain full pastry departments for the property's various needs.

  With its canned jazz soundtrack and a healthy coterie of iPad-wielding business travelers, there's no missing you're in a hotel restaurant. It may not seem like the hippest dining scene, but the next time you give the Carousel Bar a spin remember that there's serious cooking just around the corner.