Sainte Marie is shaking things up a bit. New menu. New cocktails. Owner Robert LeBlanc and managing partner Murf Reeves have decided to clear up any confusion about what kind of restaurant they run and what kind of atmosphere it’s going to provide. Simply put, a French brasserie with a twist… the twist mainly being provided by Chefs Ngoc Nuyen and Darian Williams. Both chefs are sons of Louisiana who aren’t only proud of their home state but also of the food traditions unique to their families. Murf is compiling a cocktail and beer list that isn’t stereotypical of a French brasserie yet still accessible and wallet-friendly. Don’t let the (complimentary) valet fool you—The white tablecloths are gone. Don’t worry about dropping a martini glass—There aren’t any. Sainte Marie is about relaxation. Somewhere between the fancy restaurant and the cocktail bar is a place you can chill out, have some good drinks, lose track of time, and just enjoy the people around you, whether they’re ones you brought or new friends sitting at the bar.
Photos are all of tasting-size servings. Here are some thoughts from yours truly on the new menu.
Escargot. Full disclosure: I’m never quite sure if I actually enjoy escargot. They’re always cooked in garlic and butter, and what’s not to like about that? The way these were poached in white wine with fresh thyme reminded me of the way mussels are prepared. (I guess the Belgian beer also helped my mental association.) There was definitely garlic also but not as much as usual. The bone marrow butter was delicious. This was a classic preparation with a few subtle twists (also, no shells) that was well-received even by some at the table who admitted to never ordering escargot.
The accompanying toasted slices of bread were rubbed with garlic and drops of (unnecessary) truffle oil. I did pick up the scent and faint taste of it, but no one at the table mentioned it, so I’m not sure if anyone else noticed. For me the other ingredients already delivered a great dish. (Pairing: Tripel Karmeliet. This Belgian oat/wheat/barley 13%er is surprisingly smooth and light. Handle with care.)
A surprise of sorts came in the Thai Chili Glazed Lamb Ribs, which delivered a lot more than those five words on the menu would suggest. The glaze is a creole-tomato barbeque sauce handed down to Chef Williams by his grandfather and edited to incorporate some of the signature spicy/sweet flavors common to Thailand. The glaze cuts nicely through the rich texture and unmistakable flavor of lamb. The “southern slaw” underneath keeps everything grounded in familiar territory. I’m sure the original barbeque sauce recipe is probably perfect, but you can taste that this dish was lovingly, respectfully crafted. (Pairing: Stiegl Radler: Beer and barbecue. The grapefruit flavor cleanses your palate for more eating.)
The BBQ Jerk Shrimp, originally concocted by Chef Williams as a (successful) peace offering to his girlfriend, is a play on the traditional BBQ Shrimp that you find in many local restaurants. The “jerk” flavors are what take it out of town and down into the Caribbean. The flavors are bold but still bright and fuse together nicely despite their intensity. The chow-chow, a pickled relish popular In Acadiana, is island-ized (not a verb, I know) by the inclusion of mangos. Coconut rice rounds out the dish. Although everything I tasted was perfectly cooked, the shrimp in particular had a nice, crisp bare-char on the outside without being chewy or at all dry inside. Again, a well-executed play on a classic. (Pairing: Julia and Joseph. The whiskey and rye in this one can stand up to the strength of the dish while the orange liqueur brings hint of acid and sweetness.)
The Pork Belly, on the flip side, pays homage to Chef Nguyen’s roots. The traditional Vietnamese flavors like the ginger and spices in the braise bring us over to the West Bank. (I don’t know if he’s from there, but that’s where I usually eat Vietnamese food.) You can taste the tradition in this delicious dish. There’s no rice, but carbs of some sort would be a welcome addition. The Asian vegetable salad (think of what you’d find in a fresh spring roll) adds a necessary lightness and freshness to a completely savory, decadent cut of meat. A sharper knife and a bigger plate would have helped, but nothing would’ve stopped me from finishing my serving. (Pairing: Apple Jaiquiri. Like apple jacks as a kid? Like daiquiris as a
kid legal-age drinker? Try it.)
Next a Bouillabaisse of Drum, Mussel, Littleneck Clam, and Crawfish. I can’t remember seeing crawfish in bouillabaisse before, but given our geographic location, it’s a sensible addition. Also welcome: A tiny bit of Andouille adds a hint of smokiness into the broth, which one of my dining companions noted “wasn’t too fishy” (in a good way). One flaw that can be easily remedied was there wasn’t enough of that incredible broth in the bowl. Granted it was a tasting portion, but the broth almost felt like a tease. Some of that garlic-rubbed toast from the escargot course would have been welcome for dunking and sopping too. The seafood was all cooked nicely including the drum, which was crispy. A singled, fried gnocco (as in, singular of gnocchi) was a great touch too. (Pairing: Last Word. The herbaceous flavors in this classic cocktail pick up the tarragon from the dish nicely.)
Steak Frites. I’ll try not to waste your reading time. Steak Frites is a classic dish which every brasserie should have on their menu, and Sainte Marie has a damn good one. Simple. Hearty. Hanger Steak. French Fries with truffle oil and thin slices of Parmigiano Reggiano. Sauce Béarnaise. This is not a new menu item but I don’t expect it (nor do I want it) to go away anytime soon. (Pairing: Yule Shoot Your Eye Out: Glenfiddich, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, cinnamon. Simultaneously strong enough and sweet enough to balance itself.)
The dessert. Toffee Cake with dates and vanilla ice cream. Immediate fears: Too chewy, too sweet. But this was packaged like an elegant ice cream sandwich sitting on top a small pool of caramel, it was just rich enough and just sweet enough to be satisfying without over-delivering. The portion size was just right. As someone at the table said, “I really don’t need to be eating this. And I really should stop. But it’s too good.” (Pairing: Bayou Teche Biere Noire. The pleasantly bitter coffee and cocoa notes in this dark, local beer make it a match for this dessert.)
930 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70115