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Ralph’s on the Park: Food just as good as the view

I guess it’s a good thing when the owner of a restaurant is so successful that he starts another one. And another, and another, and another. Think about John Besh, who in the past year has been involved with the openings of at least six establishments – and who might have three more before Christmas.

Think about Ralph Brennan .. yes, let’s think about Ralph. His restaurant collection numbers eight. One of them, Brennan’s on Royal Street, is one of the most important restaurants in New Orleans.

Another of Ralph’s places is his eponymous flagship, Ralph’s on the Park. Or is it, now that Brennan’s is in the catalog? And if it is, how has it been affected by the internal competition for management attention?
I hadn’t been there lately when, having not yet dined, I drove in front of the place a few weeks ago. A switch popped open in my brain: This is the time of year when Ralph’s OTP offers a summer special. For $33, they serve three appetizers and a glass of wine.

Even disregarding the markdown price, this is one of the most appealing menus in New Orleans today. The list of possible plates and wines is broad enough to make it stand on its own, with the feeling of a wine dinner but without the formality. And they’re flexible enough that adding another course or wine is as easy as it is delicious.

So, whatever the competition among its sister restaurants, Ralph’s on the Park is, if anything, better than its benchmark performance over the years.

WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
Ralph’s is historic and beautiful. Across the street is the oldest part of the park, with the biggest live oaks and an ancient bayou. In the past few years the food has equaled the environment. Chef Chip Flanagan creates the most distinctive food Ralph’s has ever had, while remaining solidly in the contemporary Creole vein and employing locally-raised foodstuffs almost exclusively. Among the dozen Brennan restaurants, only Commander’s and Brennan’s are better.

WHY IT’S GOOD
The restaurant keeps itself in the French-Creole bistro tradition. Although its cooking keeps up with the times, it’s uncomplicated and familiar. During Chef Chip’s regime he has expanded the menu in all departments. That’s a great improvement, since the menu has a history of being too abbreviated. The possibilities are much extended, with an especially strong small-plates section. Perfect for an all-appetizer dinner.

BACK STORY
More a bar than a restaurant for most of its history, the building can claim a continuous career of food and beverage service dating back to 1869. Its recent career as a major restaurant began in the early 1980s as Tavern on the Park. Ralph Brennan took over in 2001, and spent almost a year and millions of dollars to renovate the place. Ralph’s on the Park was the luckiest restaurant in the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Entirely surrounded by some of the deepest floodwaters, the restaurant’s location on the Metairie Ridge limited its damage to one broken window.

DINING ROOM
The two dining rooms on the first floor are heavily windowed, the better to let the marvelous park view in. The whole place has an antique style. A mural depicting a historically-accurate 1800s faceoff between the high-end call girls of the time and the wives of their customers is amusing.
The bar is the better dining room. It’s smaller, quieter, and on some nights sports a piano player. The private dining rooms upstairs are sometimes used for a la carte service; they have balconies that take even greater advantage of the setting.

DOZEN ESSENTIAL DISHES
1. Turtle soup, sherry
2. City Park salad, red oak leaf lettuce, romaine, Granny smith apples, Stilton blue cheese, smoked bacon
3. Truffle fries, black truffle mayo
4. Mississippi shiitake agnolotti pasta, basil, ricotta, shiitakes, lemon, brown butter, mirliton, squash, preserved lemon vinaigrette
5. Smoked fried oysters, Bourbon tomato jam, white remoulade
6. Crabmeat Daniel, housemade French dressing, brandy, chervil, celery root
7. Tuna two ways (tartare and pepper-seared with avocado, sweet chili, wasabi crème fraiche)
8. Oyster rockefeller risotto, fried oysters, herbsaint, spinach, parsley, tarragon, preserved meyer lemon, parmesan cheese, toasted bread crumbs
9. Brown butter glazed redfish, almond butter, green beans, lemon gelée, almond wafer
10. Beef molé sopes, poblano & guajillo chilis, pepitos, lime pickled onion
11. Duck confit leg quarter, braised mustard greens, duck cracklin’ corn bread, potlikker sauce, pickled greens and Vidalia onion slaw
12. Hazelnut chocolate tart, strawberry infused rum mousse, chocolate and hazelnut butter crunch

FOR BEST RESULTS
Ralph’s seems always to be running a promotion, of which the three-appetizer, $33 summer special is typical. They also regularly stage special dinners at the other end of the price spectrum, too.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
While Ralph’s has never served better food than it does now, and while the execution of the dishes is solid, I always leave feeling that it could be better still, with a little more taste and imagination. When full, the acoustics of the main dining room get uncomfortably loud.

FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
Dining environment +2
Consistency +1
Service +2
Value +1
Attitude +2
Wine and bar +1
Hipness +1
Local color +3

SPECIAL ATTRIBUTES
Balcony tables, romantic, good view, good for business meetings, many private rooms, early-evening specials, open Sunday lunch and dinner, open Monday dinner, open some holidays, historic, vegetarian dishes, good for children, free valet parking, reservations accepted.

LOCATION
City Park area: 900 City Park Ave. 488-1000
4 Stars
Average entree price $29

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