Desi Vega's Steakhouse
628 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, 504-523-7600
THREE STARS (out of four)
This steakhouse is an offshoot from the very popular Mr. John's Steakhouse just a mile up the road. It serves a similar menu in a very different setting.
This restaurant space in the CBD's Lafayette Hotel is familiar having been home to a succession of restaurants over the last few years but it's still surprising how well it works as a steakhouse. It doesn't initially even look like a steakhouse, at least not the dark, clubby, downright masculine template so many others follow. This one is bright, airy, roomy and elegant, with big windows framing views of the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue and the oaks of Lafayette Square. Strategically located near the courthouse, it has a steady business lunch scene.
Service is as prompt, confident and business-like, as you'd expect from the steakhouse niche, without much flourish or flair.
One way you know this is a New Orleans steakhouse is the preponderance of seafood on the appetizer list. There's calamari, shrimp remoulade and BBQ shrimp, but also some original dishes like 'Who Dat shrimp,' which are stuffed with crabmeat and wrapped with bacon. The crab cake is excellent and served on a hot, sizzling plate. The steak brushcetta are tasty enough, but redundant if you intend to order steak for your main course. Some of the standard steakhouse sides work just as well for appetizers, particularly the onion rings, which are thin-cut and tossed in Crystal hot sauce for a little more tang. Salads are also particularly good, especially the wedge salad with a cascade of blue cheese and bacon.
Of course any analysis of a steakhouse meal has to start with the steaks. Desi Vega serves the conventional line-up but does so in the New Orleans style -- sizzling dramatically on piping hot plates and liberally seasoned with pepper. Steaks are not only cooked to spec here, they can also be cut to spec if there is a particular way you like the thickness of yours. For something a little different, try the bone-in filet mignon, which has more richness and flavor than normal for this very tender cut. French-style brandy peppercorn sauce or a crusting of blue cheese are decadent (and pricey) add-ons, as is crabmeat and asparagus for 'the Oscar topping.' But these steaks are good enough to speak for themselves. One the side, get the textbook creamed spinach or the mac and cheese imbued with both crawfish and andouille. The fish of the day is reliable, if not really a showstopper, while for those feeling especially flush the broiled lobster tails or surf and turf option make impressive presentations. At lunch there are a few sandwiches, including a first-rate burger and a meatball po-boy.
Cheesecake and creme brulee are the expected desserts, though after these meals typically all I want is the parfait of cream and fresh fruit to finish things off.
There's a full bar with a reasonably good wine list and excellent martinis.
Desi Vega follows standard, upscale steakhouse pricing which is to say it's very expensive. With steaks, a la carte sides and drinks, it's easy to spend $70 or $80 per person. Lunch is somewhat less expensive.
Steakhouses follow a certain script all across the land, and many of the standards you'd expect are part of the program at Desi Vega. But the ways in which this place breaks away from the mold are what shows you it's a New Orleans steakhouse one with more seafood and a little more pizzazz in the presentation.