More than just cocktails

As its name suggests, Sazerac owes a heavy debt to New Orleans. But unlike so many north-of-NOLA restaurants that try to convey a Cajun-Creole vibe, the eatery isn't festooned in purple and gold, and there aren't any Mardi Gras masks or Abita beer signs tacked to the walls. Sazerac's far too sophisticated for that sort of thematic nonsense.

Instead, the new downtown restaurant picks up on the Crescent City's attitude toward dining. New Orleans eaters understand instinctively that food is meant to be an event — and meant to be enjoyed. Perhaps the quintessential New Orleans experience is a meal at the jackets-required Galatoire's, where the upper crust's been misbehaving for over a century.

Sazerac doesn't shy away from booze-fueled fun or elegant cuisine, although the latter's been largely ignored by patrons wowed by the urbane space and expertly made classic cocktails. The restaurant's unfairly gained a reputation as a before- or after-dinner spot, despite its full roster of appetizers, entrées and desserts.

"That's something that's been kind of difficult so far," admits executive chef Zeb McDermott, who reports many drinkers just scan the menu for snacks. "One of our main goals is to get the word out there that people can come in here for dinner."

When owners Jack and Lesley Groetsch, former New Orleans residents who secured local fame as the couple who managed the Orange Peel, first envisioned Sazerac, fancy food didn't figure into their plans. But after bartender Justin Crawford suggested the Groetsches nab McDermott, his former colleague at 28806, from Cucina 24, the kitchen assumed increased importance.

"They were just looking for someone to put out sandwiches and appetizers," McDermott recalls. "I really took a little initiative from the start."

Still, the late-stage shift to more serious cookery shows: The majority of seating is at glass high-tops, most of them situated so there's barely one foot of clearance between the tables and a long line of barstools. McDermott suspects Sazerac's dishes will become more popular when the weather's compatible with al fresco dining on the restaurant's rooftop patio.

"We may try to rearrange next year," McDermott allows.

Yet there's nothing slapdash about the food, which is remarkably good. While it doesn't quite work as an homage to New Orleans — the gumbo's too refined, the remoulade's too reticent — Sazerac presents a lovely riff on Asheville's edible traditions.

I'm thinking here of the very first dish McDermott put in front of me: an irresistible salad, quite rightly called "The Asheville." Salads are an important component of Sazerac's menu, partly because McDermott believes they're easy to match to cocktails. The Asheville features a hive of quinoa riddled with delicate wedges of butternut squash, teeny-tiny grape tomatoes and bullets of salty goat cheese, all dressed with a lemony oregano-vinaigrette that lends the plate a Mediterranean flair.

"I think quinoa should be Asheville's staple grain," McDermott says.

Asheville's influence also saturates a black-bean cake that, at Sazerac, goes by the gourmet-sounding name of "haricot noir." The cake, a sculpted round of well-seasoned beans seated on a smear of squash purée, is a carnivorous chef's parlor trick: It looks so much like a slab of beef that I was momentarily startled when my fork slid through it.

"I really tried to make something interesting for vegetarians," McDermott says. "I talked to a lot of vegetarians, and they didn't want to have to take things from other plates and put them together."

That's why McDermott came up with the cleverly named "crepe myrtle," a crepe stuffed with dirty rice, avocado and sautéed spinach, and he decided to resurrect a roasted vegetable sandwich that was a favorite at the now-defunct 28806. "We didn't call it the 'Garden District' over there, but it's the same sandwich we used to do back in the day," McDermott says. "I feel like that was a really great restaurant and had really great food and should be carried on."

McDermott says fans of 28806 seem to have heard he's in the kitchen at Sazerac. But for those diners who didn't get the memo, the evidence is all over the plate. The beautifully cooked leg of duck, sweetened with ready-to-pop roasted grapes and served aboard a mound of thinly sliced potatoes veiled with cheese, is pure 28806.

"I make that to order in the pan," McDermott explained when I fawned over the gratin. "It's like a potato risotto."

McDermott's also brought his sandwich expertise to Sazerac, infusing such deceptively simple preparations as turkey pressed against brie and roast beef dressed with horseradish sauce with a deliciousness rarely found between two slices of bread.

About that bread: It's from Sam's Club. "I probably shouldn't say that, but I don't want to lie," McDermott laughs. He's doing his best to make as much in-house as he can, but he's limited by the size of his kitchen. For now, the ham, the sausage and the bread are imports.

"We're opening up another restaurant," McDermott says of Tingle Café, planned for the adjacent space, "and I'll have a large area in the basement. Right now, I'm getting the best things I can find for the price."

It's a testament to McDermott's skill that the industrial loaves don't detract any from, say, the satisfying decadence of a croque monsieur-style ham and cheese paired with a glass of sparkling wine. The proportions of meat to bread to cheese were exactly right on every sandwich I sampled.

"You have to make sure a sandwich is hot all the way through," McDermott adds. "Hot crust is key. If the cheese isn't melted all the way, if the meat's chilly, it doesn't work."

Sazerac's kitchen is still working to gain an equally nuanced understanding of traditional New Orleans cookery. The gumbo, while tasty, was rum-colored and relied more on pepper than smoke. I was also disappointed by the shrimp remoulade: While the shrimp were nicely prepared, the under-seasoned sauce landed a few notches too close to Thousand Island dressing.

McDermott learned his techniques from the chef at Twin Cousins Kitchen, who counseled him on making a classic roux:

"I said butter, and he said bacon fat," McDermott says. "I still feel like the richness is there, but roux can always be richer.

"That's one of the things that's a growing process," he continues. "I'm getting closer."

So maybe it will be a few months before Sazerac turns out the South's darkest roux. But when it comes to cocktails, food, service and ambiance — the things that matter most in a region without its own roux tradition — Sazerac's already nailed it.

Food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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