Chef Erik Veney reaches for the stars at this French Quarter favorite
For enchanting French Quarter fare, smart diners in this city look no further than Muriel’s Jackson Square. From the moment you step into the welcoming foyer, you are transported to historic, elegant New Orleans. That old world sensation lasts throughout Executive Chef Erik Veney’s first-rate repertoire, a perfect balance of classic New Orleans dishes intertwined with contemporary Creole cuisine.
If the charming exposed brick walls inside Muriel’s bistro could talk, they’d have plenty to say. Decorated with antique photographs, dotted with red lamps and oozing a sexy ambiance, they’d tell fascinating stories from bygone days spent in the Quarter. They’d tell you to step upstairs and check out the sumptuous Seance Lounge at Muriel’s, perfect for intimate conversation and laughs with your closest friends. They’d tell you that the ghost rumored to reside at Muriel’s is no hoax, and that you have to look quickly to the other side of the room to witness the friendly specter’s latest prank. Then they’d tell you to get busy with the menu, because there’s a plethora of excellent choices for you to make, starting with an exhaustive wine list that offers more than 350 bottles, with over 50 half-bottles available.
For appetizers, a parcel of the signature crawfish and goat cheese crepes is a point of pride at Muriel’s. Tangy, soft and creamy goat cheese and shallots are wrapped inside crisp crepes and doused with a spicy, buttery orange sauce crafted from tomato, the “holy trinity,” Chardonnay and Muriel’s own Creole seasoning, and then topped with fresh Louisiana crawfish tails. Try them once and you’ll think about them for months to come.
Fontana’s West End Turtle Soup is a tip of the hat to Fontana’s Seafood Restaurant, long ago nestled in the West End Park area of the city. Plenty good-size chunks of soft turtle meat, ground in-house at Muriel’s, star in this flavorful, spicy, dark roux, which has a definitive vegetable and tomato base. Be sure to ask for a splash of sherry for an extra kick. A generous bowl of steamed mussels with a toasted garlic-herb cream sauce is a savory delight, made with white wine and spots of crispy tasso. Save that basket of bread for sopping up every last drop of sauce.
It’s always a welcome revelation to find salmon expertly prepared in the South. Count Muriel’s as one of those “in the know” kitchens. This blackened version is expertly prepared, arriving soft, juicy and flaky pink. It is complemented with orange segments and orange peel, and served atop a generous mound of popcorn rice sautéed with scallions and sitting next to a pool of lemon beurre blanc sauce. A hulking double-cut pork chop — a tyrannosaurus-size hunk of bone-in meat — is brined for several days and then wood-grilled for an exquisite and undeniably tender melt-in-your-mouth consistency. Finished with a sweet and spicy Louisiana sugarcane sauce and apples, this carnivore’s delight is accompanied by smoked mashed potatoes and greens cooked down old-school style with bacon and ham hocks.
Some of the most satisfying desserts in town are at Muriel’s. A generous square of pain perdu bread pudding, is studded with white chocolate goodness and candied pecans and doused with a butter rum sauce. It’s deliciously over-the-top. The vanilla bean crème brûlée is at once rich and light, silky and airy, with a crunchy top in perfect form. Be an adult and don’t fight over it; there’s plenty enough for two.
Arrive a tad before dinner or plan to stay awhile afterward because the 100-year-old Courtyard Bar and Balcony at Muriel’s is one of the greatest drink destinations in town. Step out onto the large corner balcony upstairs for a most impressive view of Jackson Square. And when something more than a casual evening comes up, Muriel’s is a hot spot for special events such as wedding receptions and private dinner parties, both large and small. Your out-of-town guests will surely be impressed as they sip Sazeracs, gaze at the majestic St. Louis Cathedral and enjoy French Quarter entertainment and dining the way they imagine it to be. So will you, especially knowing that this kind of splendid culinary adventure exists in your own backyard.