Dinner (as) theater
As the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival unfolds this week, the town will be filled with stories of its charismatic namesake and his favorite haunts.
Marti’s Restaurant is in that number. Williams owned a townhouse across the street for many years, and he frequented a restaurant that operated here under the same name from the 1970s through the 1980s. But that’s not the only reason dinner at this old-but-new-again French Quarter spot brings the theater to mind.
More viscerally, it’s the design, which leads diners from an elegant bar of dark wood, bare bulbs and green palms to a narrow passageway and then through a curtain-edged aperture to arrive, as if from stage left, in the dining room. Broad tiles crosscut the floor, chandeliers modeled on hanging gardens throw a patchwork on the ceiling and sweeping drapes reduce the street outside to gauzy shadows.
A mural of City Park occupies one wall, but it’s the room, and discreet vignettes of its occupants afforded by a network of mirrors, that fix the attention. Add the significant local dining history enclosed in these walls, which was the A-list restaurant Peristyle after its first run as Marti’s, and there’s a lot to take in here before you even consider the cocktail list. But on the right sort of night, the measured pace of a meal in phases is where this restaurant excels.
On a recent Saturday, for instance, we started with drinks and small plates (as distinct from appetizers) before even looking at the menu. A plate of marinated olives ($4) and a ring of small pork meatballs ($7), covered in crushed almonds and slivers of sheep’s milk cheese, came from a list that doubles as snacks for the bar and a pre-course for the table. Indulgent? Yes, but when dinner is the main act of a night on the town it makes a seductive start.
The modern Marti’s was opened last fall by a team of partners including Patrick Singley, proprietor of Gautreau’s. Naturally, the reputation of that top-tier Uptown bistro precedes it. But Marti’s is a much different restaurant, based on bigger, more rustic, generally straightforward flavors. The chef, Drew Lockett, roots his menu in brasserie classics but works in plenty of modern touchstones.
Chilled seafood platters ($65 for “petite,” $120 for “grand”) take the form of multi-tiered towers of lobster, shrimp, crab claws, raw oysters and scallop ceviche, and look like centerpieces for a banquet of plutocrats. But then there’s poutine ($12), that current darling of gastropub dining, here rendered with excellent fries covered in fall-apart chunks of short rib and tangy-tart goat cheese. Bone marrow ($14) scooped straight from a split femur looks like caveman charcuterie, though the mouth-coating spread is cut by fresh thyme, marinated shallots and the char on grilled bread.
Tentacles are trending at bistros, but Lockett’s octopus appetizer ($17) is a bit different, fried in a puffy batter like onion rings over a thick, nutty red pepper sauce and imbued with the briny blasts of white anchovies. Roasted oysters ($12 half dozen/$24 dozen) are dabbed with pimento butter for a little spice and remained piping hot under tight caps of bread crumbs until we emptied the final shell.
Rabbit two ways ($29) — grilled, sliced loin and a braised leg on the bone — were both somewhat dry and got an essential assist from the ruddy, rich and salty kidney gravy. Hangar steak ($28) delivers precisely what you’d expect — a loose red interior under a seared crust, more of those fries and a thick, superior mayo. The tagliatelle with lobster and spinach ($29) was rich and succulent, as if the drawn butter from a shore dinner had been poured over the tender noodles.
Dark chocolate pot de crème ($8), dense and fudgy under a cap of caramel and sparkling salt flakes, called out for an after-dinner drink. Thus equipped for the third act of the evening, we watched this captivating and eminently social dining room enter its third act, with big groups growing louder and quiet couples sliding closer.
It was a scene that may be familiar to people who knew this restaurant through its earlier eras. But, like any good piece of stage work, familiarity doesn’t diminish the satisfying finale.