700 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans
THREE STARS (out of four)
The French-born chef Rene Bajeux made quite a name for himself in New Orleans in the years before Hurricane Katrina, culminating with his first Rene Bistrot in the CBD. It was in a hotel restaurant space, but the chef’s bistro approach powerfully evoked the rustic French ideal for many. Katrina spelled the end of this restaurant, but in 2012 Bajeux opened its second rendition in another hotel, this time in the Warehouse District. The chef hails from Alsace, the border region between France and Germany where the traditional cooking blends elements of each neighbor. His menu here brings in a lot of this influence, with a healthy dose of Louisiana produce and a few out-of-leftfield dishes to mix things up.
If you remember the old La Cote Brasserie, you might not notice any change here at all. It’s a sprawling hotel restaurant space, which is done nicely if in a somewhat anonymously corporate style. The curving bar, the big windows letting in lots of light and a tour through the hotel’s significant art displays on the way in are all high points. The spaciousness recommends Rene for larger parties when you don’t want to feel cramped or for those off-the-cuff outings without reservations. The dining room is rarely full and immediate seating is usually no problem.
Service remains an Achilles heel to this place, as it did for its predecessor La Cote Brasserie. Call it the hotel staffing curse. The waitresses are friendly in a New Orleans way, and generally efficient, but they seem disconnected from the cuisine and the overall restaurant’s character. This is a particular problem for a menu that can throw some curveballs.
The best results here come with dishes most familiar from the French classics in general and the Alsace cookbook in particular. For appetizers, this means the tarte flambee, a sort of flatbread pizza, topped with onion, bacon and a white farmers cheese. This is large and should be shared. Boudin noir (a blood sausage) is excellent, cooked in red wine and arrayed attractively with a topping of wild mushrooms. Roasted sardines are served whole and snapping with oil and should be reserved for fans of strong-flavored fish only, while the various charcuterie and smoked salmon are reliable options.
The roasted chicken “grand mere” is a showpiece of the menu. Plump, juicy, bronzed and surrounded by a woodsy harvest of mushrooms, onions, potatoes and smoky bacon it is a fine representation of the bistro form. I also like the wild boar Bourguignon with egg noodles, the paneed veal and a dish of brioche-crusted sweetbreads over spaetzle, the German-style potato noodles. In general, meat entrees tend to fair better than the handful of seafood ones. A Basque-style seafood stew and the French bouillabaisse are each served in gargantuan metal pots, big drum-like vessels the size of woks. But both lacked much distinction and proved a mishmash of various seafood and broth. The size is the only real wow-factor.
A cake made with goat cheese and a dense chocolate “terrine” – sort of a chewy sliced fudge – with citrus and mint are the best choices.
There’s a full bar and the wine list has a small specialty in regional Alsatian wines. If you’re interested in a good pairing, however, do your homework beforehand. The staff is not well-versed on the list.
Here’s a nice surprise: Rene Bistrot is a solid notch cheaper than the fine-dining norm these days, with most appetizers well below $10 and entrees in the high-teens/low-twenties range. The three-course lunch is a good bargain for about $20 is a good bargain.
Despite some shortcomings, Rene Bistrot can put out a meal you’ll long remember. If you have a taste for real, rustic French cooking, and a certain amount of patience for less-than-ideal restaurant settings and operations, you’ll enjoy this place. You do need to check some expectations at the door, but for the best dishes here this is a worthwhile trade.