By JOHN DeMERS
My New Orleans story goes back to the day my parents – my father a French Catholic from Boston, my mother a Southern Baptist from Pleasant Hill in north Louisiana – settled in the city at the end of World War II. Chris Brown’s family has a New Orleans story that goes back generations. And that, according to local reasoning, is why everything the guy cooks tastes better than anything I cook.
A mere generation ago, even beyond the troubling question of race, it was unlikely a big hotel in New Orleans would have let a New Orleans native run its kitchen – that being a job fit for French chefs or, even worse, German or Swiss. It was even more unlikely that such a local chef, having somehow sneaked past prejudice into the top job, would have been allowed to cook real New Orleans food. You know, the kind of dishes his Grandma used to make.
With a passel of dishes learned from his Grandma as far back as he can remember, homegrown talent Chris Brown is the executive chef of the usually LA-crazed W Hotel, his chief playground being the comfortable bistro called Zoe. A dinner in Zoe doesn’t just turn up some genuine New Orleans dishes on the menu. Thanks to Chris – and to both a hotel GM and a food and beverage director native to the Crescent City – there’s barely anything on the menu that isn’t. Having admired Chris’ food for something like 15 years in several quite different restaurants, I couldn’t be happier to let him feed me in his new digs.
Zoe’s new menu is a dramatic departure from previous incarnations I can remember, most of them fitting the W brand of California chic. The single page is packed with selections that certainly can be and are served stylishly – but not before the deep, rich flavors of the Creole and Cajun experience (two separate story lines that come together in New Orleans) work their magic. Chris’ BBQ shrimp are verging on the best I’ve ever had, light years improved over the “original” with the addition of a buttery Abita Beer broth. Also amazing are the spicy tempura shrimp with red bean cake and corn emulsion, not to mention the so-called crab and shrimp broil. Not exactly what it sounds like (boiled seafood dumped out on yesterday’s newspaper), this is more of a seafood cocktail with tangy remoulade sauce and creamy slices of avocado.
As far as I’m concerned, you’re not allowed to eat here without getting a bowl (or at least a cup) of Chris’ file gumbo. If you have any New Orleans roots at all, this rouxed-up collaboration of chicken, shrimp and andouille will definitely take you home. Best bet from among the entrees has to be the spice dusted redfish (which Chris says off the record is “not quite blackened”), with an amazing ragout (I’d rather call it dressing) of mirliton and shrimp, plus a lush red sauce piquant. The crispy duck offers another incredible way to go in a state long billed as the Sportsman’s Paradise, showing up with a pecan-molasses glaze and a sweet potato puree.
There are several excellent desserts, but at long last the best finale at the W in New Orleans is the city’s own rendition of bread pudding. This one involves white chocolate, to be sure, but the whole things is so light, airy and almost feathery that it seems God’s own blend of croissant, French toast and warm Krispy Kreme doughnut. Chris Brown’s menu at Zoe invites each guest to “tempt taste sip savor.” Yes, I can report, I did all of those.