Ralphs On the Park
900 City Park Ave
New Orleans, LA 70119
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Ralph's on the Park is the most ambitious offering from veteran local restaurateur Ralph Brennan (of the famous Brennan restaurant family). An upscale Creole showcase in a part of town that doesn't have many other high-end restaurants, this place has played things fairly conservative in recent years. Last year, however, Chip Flanagan was promoted to executive chef and he has since been adding an increasingly contemporary shine to the menu, which now offers more international flavors and playful presentations than ever.
This building has been around since the mid-19th century, and Ralph Brennan accomplished a very elegant renovation here. The restaurant's neighbor and namesake, City Park, contributes enormously to the visual appeal. The moss-draped oaks are visible through the big windows surrounding the main dining room while an interesting historical mural anchors the opposite wall. The bar has its own upscale cocktail scene, with a scattering of solo diners or people ordering a few apps with their drinks. The Friday-only lunch service is a pretty celebratory scene, with plenty of martinis making the rounds.
This place has all the hallmarks of the Brennan-style service, for better or worse. Professional managers are always on the scene, ready to intercede or add some welcoming touch, and the wait staff uses the group service approach to deliver dishes simultaneously. But there is something mechanical about the recitation of it all. The scripting is overt, especially when it comes to pushing certain dishes.
A few familiar Creole classics still turn up on Ralph's menu, like the venerable turtle soup. But otherwise this is where the chef starts strutting his stuff and giving a taste of the international flavors to come in full force with the entrees. Spring rolls, for instance, are stuffed with cochon de lait, rolled in pecans and fried, then served with a soy reduction and cabbage slaw. The item promoted most heavily by the staff is the Cajun Scotch egg, which calls for a boiled egg wrapped in boudin and fried. While novel, it proves a bit of a mess once you start taking it apart. I much prefer the crabmeat ravigote Napoleon, a cylinder of large-bore Israeli couscous mixed with corn and topped with lightly-dressed crab and cucumber slices with dashes of salsa verde on the side. Though the black drum rillete wasn't available on my latest visits, I do hope this one-time menu mainstay makes a comeback. This chilled fish pate is a bit unusual, but so good when spread on crisped bread.
The chef dials up the globetrotting with the entrees. Lamb cheeks get a Middle Eastern spin, with roasted eggplant crostini on the side, lemony couscous underneath and chickpeas over the top. The hanger steak has a strong Korean influence, courtesy of a spicy, ginger barbecue sauce and crisp cucumber salad. While the steak was very good, the accompanying fries were undercooked, leaving them starchy and wobbly. The red snapper gets an interesting crust of spicy cream cheese, which clings to the fish like a roasted aioli. Many of the dinner dishes are reprised at lunch, when the kitchen also indulges the slider craze with a pair of shrunken hamburgers that, while small in diameter, are so towering and bulky they prove difficult to eat. Brunch brings out a few more classic Creole dishes, like the ever-popular grillades and grits, though my favorite is the offbeat and original boudin-stuffed chicken with chocolate chip waffle. It seems over the top, but actually plays off a sweet, salty, crispy, tender balance.
The most interesting dessert option is a tribute to three well-known candies: one fashioned like a dessert terrine slice from an enormous Snicker's bar, a peanut butter cup that surpasses its Reese's inspiration and a rocky road-style mousse.
Ralph's has the usual specialty cocktail list, practically de rigueur these days, though it does a fine enough job with the straightforward classics. The wine list leans heavily toward expensive California bottles and could use some diversity. This is also one of the few restaurants of this caliber and culinary ambition where you'll actually find Beringer white zinfandel on the list.
Ralph's is in line with its high-end peers, with most entrees over $25. A couple should expect to spend $140 here for dinner with wine. The Friday-only lunch is somewhat less expensive, but it's a big social scene so people tend to do it up with cocktails that will inflate the final tally.
The new approach and the outgoing menu is a refreshing change at this beautiful spot, making it worth a new look. The balance between old school Creole, the compelling setting and the inventive new direction of the menu is interesting to watch and usually very rewarding to experience.