Ralph's on the Park Awarded FOUR BEANS

With the finesse of chef Gerard Maras, Ralph's does justice to its idyllic location

By Brett Anderson
Restaurant critic
The Times Picayune

Ralph's on the Park, the new Mid-City restaurant, leaves the impression of having risen organically, as if proprietor Ralph Brennan moved in with his staff and simply nurtured what he found to full bloom. This feeling of pure, unforced flowering is rare for a new restaurant, and at Ralph's it has a variety of sources.

There is the location, which is evident in its name, its City Park Avenue address and its view, a panorama of the park that takes in its Beaux Arts, wrought-iron archway and moss-draped oaks. There is the space itself, particularly the large, dark-hued bar and the austere main dining room, where the soft putty and artichoke colors seem primed for sun-ripening. There is the staff, whose members operate with the ardor of new hires but the confidence of people who've been talking about the homemade pickles on the charcuterie plate for years.

And there are the diners. When new restaurants hit with a bang, the excitement is often ephemeral. At Ralph's it is tinged with the air of longevity. I saw sharply dressed people doing business over lunch and celebrating birthdays and enjoying Saturday breakfast with the family -- the kinds of things done out of habit or tradition. On a recent, jam-packed Friday night, we noticed that a table of attractive women was filled-out by the entire Manning family football clan. "They walked in unannounced and asked for a table for eight," our waiter told us with a smirk. "What do you know -- we found one for them."

They've all descended on Ralph's in droves to get a load of the view, of the handsomely refurbished building and of each other. But most of all they've come to eat Gerard Maras' food.

Maras is the gifted chef with a 40-acre farm on the north shore and a cult-like following in the city. As the longtime chef at Mr. B's and, after that, Gerard's Downtown, his own restaurant in the CBD, Maras built a reputation cooking with in-season, farm-fresh ingredients. For the attention and homage paid to the materials of his trade, Maras has only a handful of local rivals.

Maras worked with Brennan in his Mr. B's days. In reuniting, Brennan has given the chef a large stage, and Maras has responded with a slew of options -- a sizable dinner menu buttressed by a smaller vegetarian menu as well as separate lunch, Saturday breakfast and Sunday brunch menus -- that will be recognizable to anyone familiar with his cooking.

Ralph's menu is not filled with rehashes of things Maras has done in the past, but his style is discernible. He places paper-thin slices of turnips over the farmers market salad -- soft lettuce, juicy navel oranges, a sprinkle of Washington Parish cheddar cheese -- as though they were truffles. Tiny radish matchsticks and baby pea shoots sit at the rim of another plate, giving an appetizer of cool Maine lobster in lemony Verbena dressing all of the natural zing it needs. Our fried oyster mushrooms were too salty, but the idea was a winner. Cooked crisp and oozy, the earthy fungi were as decadent as fried mollusks.

Few New Orleans chefs exhibit such confidence in the pleasure-giving potential of barely adorned ingredients. Oysters Ralph are broiled oysters accented -- not smothered -- by bits of bacon, jalapeno cream and a thin cover of wilted spinach. The mussel soup Provencal was amazing. A thin cream broth flecked with saffron threads hid four shelled mussels, swollen into perfect beige ovals. The steamed mussels, presented in a buttery, drinkable liquid with stewy tomatoes and webs of wilted, thin-sliced fennel, were also flawless. Ask for some with a side of the crispy, salt-freckled pommes frites.

The spare approach sometimes backfired. My tuna carpaccio badly needed something -- perhaps some of the orange blossom vinegar the menu promised -- to bring it to life. The beef tartare was nice, but it lacked the rich gloss of raw egg that imbues traditional versions with their gimme-some-more irresistibility.

More successful was the baby drum. Baked simply with butter and breadcrumbs and drizzled with a touch of béarnaise, it was sent out with some steamed basmati rice and a few thin asparagus spears. I was struck by how little imagination was wasted on the dish. I also can't recall ever eating a more delicious preparation of drum. Herb-crusted lamb chops benefited from similar delicacy. I'll soon forget its side of wilted spinach, not the sweet-flavored lamb.

Maras is a mature chef who's not consumed with proving that he's a special talent. He's more inclined to serve up casually elegant takes on things that he and Brennan have calculated will sell with some regularity.

At lunch, this could be creamy egg salad served over multi-grain toast points, a triangle of seared tuna balanced over the top. Or it could be the London broil. The modern touch was in the silky brown gravy featuring at least two types of wild mushrooms.

The liver-y richness of the dinner menu's Kobe beef Flatiron steak was nicely counterbalanced by a spiced black currant sauce. Veal short ribs were braised in red wine, producing tender shreds of meat glistening with a luscious, faintly sweet sauce. With all of it slathered over buttery homemade egg noodles, it was home cooking elevated to the level of the setting. The grilled chicken went in the opposite direction. It was the sort of dry, flavorless bird you eat at home while wishing you were out.

It was one of few disappointments. On early visits, our meals began with hot, potato-chive "crescents" and served with a dish of butter and another of duck liver pate, arguably the world's best butter substitute. The pate sadly never arrived during a more recent lunch. On my last visit, the potato-chive crescents were gone too, replaced by boring rolls.

The wine list is so well organized and full of fun options -- a fruity Brundlmayer Brut from Austria, an aromatic, bay-leafy mourvèdre from California's Cline -- that I was never compelled to seek guidance with it, though our waiters seemed familiar with its contents.

Like so many of Maras' creations, the desserts struck familiar chords with uncommon harmony. The spongy, warm apple cake was terrific with a little pool of hot caramel and a fluff of unsweetened double cream, and I loved a basic tart of thick vanilla cream adorned by one of the season's first strawberries, which was cut thin and arranged like rose petals over the top. I'd skip the pineapple crisp; it didn't taste much like pineapple, and it wasn't very crisp.

But by no means should you even think of passing on the theobroma. The exotic-sounding treat (theobroma is Latin for "food of the gods") is actually a milky chocolate soup. A round piece of absurdly moist chocolate-raspberry cake juts from the center of the cup. Probe with your spoon and you'll find some whipped cream, strawberries, more chocolate.

"It's like letting your ice cream melt and then throwing a cupcake into it," my friend announced between happy moans. We had just finished a lunch overlooking the park in a dining room without a table to spare. Our sense of place was profound. And it was no mystery why Ralph's on the Park has so quickly become the place to be.


Food: Excellent. Chef Gerard Maras has seized the stage provided by Ralph Brennan to bring his spare, garden-fresh cooking to the sort of rapt, mass audience he grew accustomed to during his days at Mr. B's. By turns rustically hearty and bracingly light, his cooking touches on classic French, Italian and American traditions. It exhibits the confidence and maturity of a chef who is, refreshingly, not consumed with proving that he's a special talent. He just is.

Ambiance: Excellent. The main dining room and bar beautifully show off the restaurant's parkside location, already one of the loveliest in the city. The design is calming and tasteful, like the view.

Service: Excellent. Brennan clearly recruited an experienced staff. The tableside chops of most staffers include encyclopedic knowledge of the menu and a sense of humor.

Comfort: Very good. The place is busy. It can be loud and noisy. We spent the better part of one lunch yelling "What?" at our server. Smoking permitted in the bar area only. Wheelchair accessible.

Cleanliness: Excellent.

Best bets: Oysters Ralph ($6.50); steamed mussels and fennel ($8.25); lobster, tomato and verbena ($9.50); veal short ribs ($19.25); baked baby drum ($16.75); Kobe Flatiron steak ($28.50 with soup or salad); grilled herb-crusted lamb chops ($29.50); theobroma ($6).