Walking past the revolving doors of Luke on a recent cold winter night, I felt as though I was back in Paris, entering an old-fashioned brasserie in the seventh arrondissement on the Left Bank. It was Saturday and the place was packed.
Pressed tin ceilings enhanced the echo of lively conversation. Wooden partitions between table groupings held rods with newspapers, something reminiscent of the countless cafés lining the winding cobblestone streets in the City of Light. I half expected to see a little old man donning a beret and sipping cassis while holding a small dog at the table (a very common sight in Parisian brasseries). But the crowd was a mixture of well-heeled locals and visitors. A group of young adults took over the rear dining room near the kitchen, obviously celebrating an evening on the town.
A bountiful seafood display at the end of the long, mahogany bar showcased a variety of oysters including Chef’s Creek, P&J, and Prince Edward Island bivalves along with mussels, clams, lobster, Dungeness crabs, and bulbous shrimp. I decided right then how we would start the meal.
Located on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans across from the Hotel InterContinental, Luke opened in May 2007. Chef John Besh, the 2006 James Beard Award winner of Best Chef, Southeast, expanded his family of restaurant holdings to include this French brasserie that is a nod to Gluck’s, Kolb’s, and other beloved but bygone New Orleans restaurants dating back to the 1890s. The old brasseries were the time-honored establishments of late 19th-century German and Jewish immigrants whose influence on the food and culture of New Orleans was profound.
“Luke is where Alsace meets New Orleans,” Besh says. “It may not be special occasion fare, per se, but it’s comforting and wholesome, and has a lot of favorites that were brought over from the old country. It’s perfectly natural to have matzo ball soup on the menu.” Besh’s flagship Restaurant August continues to garner accolades; it is also very French, although more high-end.
Steve McHugh is Besh’s executive chef at Luke. He was formerly the chef de cuisine at Besh Steakhouse at Harrah’s and also worked under Besh at Restaurant August. Soon after hurricane Katrina, McHugh worked 20-hour days side by side with Besh to serve breakfasts to hundreds of FEMA workers. “We were a couple of fine dining chefs making scrambled eggs for 600. We didn’t know what we were doing!” he says.
But Chef McHugh certainly knows what he is doing in the kitchen at Luke. I have not often sampled such excellent pâtés and terrines outside of France. “We have a pig farm in Folsom,” the chef explains. His interest in the restaurant world started on the farm at age 14, so this farm boy-turned-chef is right at home again. The pâté de campagne of wild boar arrives as two triangles served atop a mustard gelée, with watermelon pickles. The rabbit and duck liver pâté comes in a little pot on a wooden board, smooth and creamy, perfumed with truffles, utterly satisfying. The terrine of slow cooked foie gras melts in the mouth, served with warm brioche toast points.
We ordered the festively presented “Le Grande Plateau de Fruits de Mer” from the raw bar, which was served on a three-tiered platter. It included lightly steamed, salty mussels, clams with a fresh garlic and pepper kick, split lobster tails, a variety of oysters on the half shell, huge shrimp, seviche, and a couple of sauces, the best of which was buttery and flecked with fresh tarragon. Some people come in just to have the seafood platter (you can also get a small one) and enjoy such classic cocktails as the French 75 (champagne, cognac, and fresh lemon juice), mint juleps, and Sazeracs.
Hot appetizers include pied de cochon “croustillant” with a sauce Gribiche, which translates to pig’s feet (fresh from the farm!) with a delicious sauce that resembles tartar, only kicked up a notch with fresh tarragon and chives, shallots, and whole grain mustard.
You can enjoy everything from a burger (served on a wooden board) with caramelized onions and Emmenthaler cheese with house made fries served vertically in a cute cup, to grilled ribeyes with jumbo lump crabmeat, redfish, a pressed sandwich of whole roast cochon du lait, poulet grand mere with whipped potatoes, and a classic croquet monsieur comparable to the ones served at the best Parisian brasseries (you get a fried organic egg with this grilled ham and cheese sandwich). This is comfort food at its best. There are also daily specials. Recommended is the white bean and duck cassoulet slow cooked with pork sausage, smoked bacon, and duck confit on Monday. A stunning duck dish on the regular dinner menu is the vanilla scented duck with Plaquemines Parish satsumas (see recipe that follows).
The desserts are marvelous, especially the Black Forest pot de crème with brandied cherries and Chantilly cream, and the gateau Basque vanilla cake with fresh fruit and crème fraiche. Service is provided by a team of very attentive white jacketed waiters. Not surprisingly, Luke offers an extensive French, German, and Belgian beer selection, including three exclusive house brews. The wine list features reds and whites from the Loire, Alsace, and Savoie regions, as well as Badischerwiens of Germany. Refreshingly, none are over $45, save those on the special reserve list.