Table Talk: The Fix is In
Fine dining at a set price
August’s chef de cuisine Michael Gulotta
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS
Prix fixe menus can offer the best bang for the buck at fine-dining restaurants, and this is doubly true for lunch, where a diner can fit in a three-course meal for less than the price of an entrée at the dinner seating.
Restaurant August has long offered one of the best lunch deals in town, with a three-course prix fixe menu costing $20.12, not including tax or tip. “We wanted to show people that they could have a great dining experience for lunch and not have to pay an arm and a leg for it,” says chef de cuisine Michael Gulotta. The menu is ingredient-driven and changes often, based on availability. Each morning Gulotta and his sous chef take stock of the walk-in contents and the morning deliveries and go from there. Preparation is fairly simple and clean, and the choices follow a structure: for the appetizers there will be a soup, a salad and a charcuterie item. “Right now we’re running a squash soup with candied pecans and a little smoked bacon,” Gulotta says. The salad choice featured roasted cauliflower sourced from Covey Rise Farms in Husser, which provides a lot of the “field-to-table” produce used by John Besh’s restaurants. The charcuterie was a rustic pâté made from pork raised at La Provence Farm. “Since we keep things simple we can change it at the drop of a hat. Whatever comes through the door, we can make the adjustment that day,” Gulotta says.
For main courses, he’ll offer a meat, a fish and often a pasta dish. Gulotta makes an effort to feature sheepshead, a local fish with an unfair reputation. “I’m from New Orleans and I personally grew up eating it,” he says. “You would never see it on menus because it was considered a ‘trash fish,’ but I’d always heard it called the ‘fisherman’s fish’ because it was one of the best-tasting. It is a great fish and it cooks up beautifully.”
Why the bad reputation?
“Have you ever seen one? They are ugly and tough to fillet. When I was in culinary school one of their things was that they would dump 100 pounds of sheepshead on the table and say, ‘Alright, practice filleting fish.’”
For meats, a pork belly entrée is often run, with its components changing based on availability. The unctuous meat gets roasted skin-on for a crackling-like texture and was recently served with a glaze of poached Georgia apples and Brussels sprouts, then finished with herbs and a little pork jus. A nod to a local favorite came with the shrimp stuffed with mirliton dressing, finished with brown butter sauce and andouille.
Recent desserts featured an elegant, molded chocolate chiboust dry-sprayed with cocoa powder, along with a savory cheese option for those lacking a sweet tooth. A selection of wines by the glass, including Cavit Prosecco, will round out your luxe lunch experience at a relative bargain of a price.
On the other side of the CBD, husband-and-wife team Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing offer their three-course prix fixe deal at MiLa for $20. Grounded in Louisiana and Mississippi cuisine, the pair brings a lighter touch to this traditionally heavy fare.
“Since opening, we have found things that work best with the special,” Allison says. The menu features two choices for each of the three courses. “We always have a choice of a soup or salad for the first course, and we usually feature rice pudding as one of the desserts.” The soup changes seasonally and revolves around what is available from Lujele Farms in Mount Hermon, La., from which they source much of their produce. Recently it was a butternut squash version dressed up with chunks of blue crab, chips of shiitake mushrooms and a drizzle of spiced crème fraiche.
Entrées will usually include a choice of meat or fish. A dish of braised veal cheeks was the perfect fit during a recent cold snap. The richness of the demi-glace and accompanying winter vegetables, including turnips and purple hull peas, made it a decadent up-sell on comfort food. The fish dish featured filo-crusted redfish on a bed of Israeli couscous and sautéed kale. “With the fish dishes it’s always nice to have a little texture, especially with fish where we can’t keep the skin on, like redfish,” Allison says. A dash of lobster broth accentuated the seafood’s flavor.
Though it isn’t stated on the menu, MiLa offers vegetarian options for the main course if diners request it. “We always accommodate that,” Allison says.
Another item that typically stays on the prix fixe menu is the excellent rice pudding. “We do ours a bit differently,” she says. “For a lot of rice puddings, chefs will cook their rice start to finish in the dairy only, which is a little too viscous for that and doesn’t cook that rice through. So we cook ours in water and then cook it in custard. It makes it into a two-step process but the results are better.”
MiLa’s kitchen also recognizes that lunch in the CBD isn’t always a leisurely affair, so service comfortably accommodates a one-hour time slot. “That way people can get back to work, although they’re welcome to take as long as they want, of course,” Allison says.
Though the restaurant is housed in a hotel near the outer edge of the CBD, a boom in redevelopment is finally taking off and could help reinvigorate this quieter stretch of the downtown area. “I think pretty soon this will be a neighborhood that people are going to spend more time in,” Allison says. “Especially encouraging is that people are moving in to live down here, and we’ve got the Rouses now to kind of anchor a livable neighborhood. All in all, it has been really positive for us.”
Other fine-dining deals around town include the famous Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace starting at $29, though prices quickly jump into the mid-$30s from there. An often-overlooked “Light Lunch” at Bayona (Saturdays only) offers three small plates for $25, and Coquette offers a three-course lunch deal for $20 from Wednesdays through Saturdays.