Rib Room Rotisserie
621 Saint Louis St
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Rating: ***/*****
The Rib Room has been around for more than 50 years now, and in that time it has become a New Orleans classic. That's not to say it hasn't changed during that impressive stretch of time, and in 2011 a big change came along when Rene Bajeux was named executive chef. A native of France, Bajeux had built a reputation around New Orleans at the Windsor Court Grill Room and his own restaurant, Rene Bistrot, before Hurricane Katrina. He's made a positive impact at the Rib Room, updating the menu and infusing new culinary interest while polishing up enough touchstones that the place remains true to its traditional identity.
Found inside the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, the Rib Room has one of the great dining rooms of New Orleans. It's from a different age and carries a distinct retro appeal in its soaring ceilings, open rotisserie and dark colors of polished wood, brass and faux marble. The mark of age and hard hotel use turns up in less flattering ways - scuffed up chairs, for instance - but overall the grand room creates an impressive ambiance. The bar is split between the restaurant and a portion of the bright, elegantly-appointed lobby, and this makes a good spot for a quick drink if you just want to check things out during a spin through the Quarter. Private dining rooms, found below street level and lined with wine lockers, make alluring settings should you be in the market for such a venue.
Service can be uneven from visit to visit. Some of the wait staff seem like old pros, and their rapport with Rib Room regulars is easy to see. But too often others seem unfamiliar with the menus and can't make reliable recommendations. If you forget you're dining in a hotel, this will remind you. Still, some formal service touches do endure here, and these feel very much at home in this setting.
The Rib Room looks and functions much as it long has, but, fittingly, chef Bajeux's influence is apparent on the menu. Salmon is smoked in house and served with a juniper berry vinaigrette and potato galette. Oysters Amandine combines two familiar favorites in a new way - the fried oysters are coated in the classic butter sauce with slivered almonds with the addition of salty fried capers. But the calamari "steak fries" weren't crisp enough and proved bland, despite a very good aioli on the side, and the shrimp risotto croquettes tasted mostly of their fried crusts. The dark, rich lobster bisque touched with brandy, rum cream and ginger was flawless, and a salad of beautiful grilled shrimp and chunks of tasso with pickled onion was another stunning starter.
One of the most obvious changes Bajeux brought to the Rib Room is a new focus on seafood. The seared tuna with mushrooms, arugula and a touch of saffron and the shrimp and scallops in risotto are tightly done, and I've never been disappointed with whatever Gulf fish was on special. The restaurant's namesake dish is of course still a centerpiece of the menu. This is not a cut of meat I really crave, and though this example came out reasonably well-crusted and cooked to specification it didn't do anything to change my feelings about prime rib overall. The restaurant's rotisserie, however, is turning out some of the most exciting dishes now. Quails are smoked and stuffed with Manchego and salami before making the rounds, for instance, and like the other rotisserie dishes they're served with a classic ratatouille. Much of the dinner menu appears at lunch too, and there are also some lunch specialties. The paneed veal cutlet, called veal Tanet, is a Rib Room classic that endures and while this doesn't look like the place to order sandwiches the prime rib debris po-boy is exceptionally good. Made on a whole crisp, pistolette, it spills forth an enormous amount of chopped bits of beef in a rich gravy.
Desserts are rather low-key, keeping more to the classic standards with a few distinctive twists. The list changes seasonally, so for the winter there's a spicy gingerbread cake with Creole cream cheese frosting and orange caramel and a Grand Marnier crème brulee, touched off with candied citrus, among others.
The wine list is serious and significant, and though not exactly value-oriented you can, with a sharp eye, find some deals (look especially in the section labeled "interesting wines"). The bar mixes a fine cocktail. If you're doing it up at lunch don't miss the old-school martini service, which arrives at the table with a veritable buffet of garnishes.
The Rib Room will bring you a bill commensurate with the grand setting, and at dinner a couple should expect to spend at least $150 with wine or cocktails. Most appetizers are more than $10 (my favorite, that shrimp and tasso salad, is a brow-raising $18), most entrees are in the high $20-range and the prime ribs get close to $40. The three-course lunch deal is a major bargain at $25.
Taking the reins at such an established, traditional restaurant as the Rib Room can be a tricky business. Inevitably some people will want nothing to change, even when it's clear that well-directed change would do the place some good. Bajeux has toed the line between the long-standing identity forged in this dining room and the modern tastes its customers bring to meals in that dining room today.