Fine dining with a bayou accent

Restaurant CriticJanuary 21, 2005 

A restaurant, like a person, has a pedigree. Its DNA is as complex as any double helix, an interweaving of factors that include the backgrounds of its owner and staff, the cultural heritage of the food it serves, sometimes even the history of the building it inhabits.

Take Rey's, for instance. When the restaurant opened in October, it inherited the lavishly furnished brick building vacated by Ruth's Chris when the steakhouse moved to even ritzier digs in northern Cary. Returning patrons will recognize many features -- the country club-style drive-through portico, the ornate wine racks lining the entry walls, the yards of mahogany and frosted glass in the dining rooms. This inherited architecture is the restaurant equivalent of "he's got his mother's bone structure."

If Ruth's Chris is Rey's mamma, then owner Rey Arias is undeniably its daddy. Arias has spent the entire 35 years of his adult life in the restaurant business and was general manager of Ruth's Chris from its opening in 1997 until last year. When the steakhouse relocated last summer, he saw it as the opportunity to realize a lifelong dream.

Arias' culinary genes are evident in just about every feature of his namesake restaurant. For starters, he shelled out half a million dollars to give the dining room and bar a makeover with a French Quarter feel. The result, with its faux gas lamps, richly brocaded banquettes and wrought iron scrollwork accents, is an homage to La Louisiane, the New Orleans restaurant where Arias worked as a young man and which he credits with inspiring him to make his career in the restaurant business.

So is the bill of fare, most of which is devoted to Cajun/Creole and continental classics. There's a bit of steakhouse in the mix, too, a reflection of the owner's more recent years -- and of the fact that state-of-the-art steakhouse broilers are part of that "bone structure" that Rey's inherited from Ruth's Chris.

Deluxe ingredients are a dominant trait of Rey's. So are old-fashioned formal service and showmanship, evident from the exceptionally rich gumbo poured into your bowl from a polished stainless steel pitcher at the beginning of the meal to the classic bananas Foster, flambeed tableside, at its conclusion.

Crabmeat cocktail is a star among stars on the appetizer list, serving up sweet nuggets of blue crab that live up to the menu's description as "colossal." Nearly as impressive is shrimp cocktail, in which the featured shellfish likewise earn their "jumbo" billing.

But for anyone who has ever been disappointed by what passes for "giant prawns" at too many restaurants, Rey's presentation is a jaw-dropping delight. These are the real deal, more like miniature lobsters (which, strictly speaking, they are) than large shrimp, stuffed with a rich forcemeat of lobster and crawfish. If the size of the prawns isn't up to Rey's standards, you'll be served three instead of the promised two. And those three will still dwarf the typical restaurant "prawn."

Beef gets top billing among entrees, and -- not surprisingly -- the emphasis is on the most luxurious cuts. Preparations cover the spectrum from the continental classic chateaubriand for two to Cajun-accented tournedos smothered with sauteed crawfish to the steakhouse favorite prime New York strip that's frequently offered as a special.

It's hard to go wrong, but steakhouse fans would be well-advised to take advantage of that special. Your reward is a 16-ounce slab of beef that's as fat and juicy as any Ruth's Chris ever served. Purists, however, should note that the steak is seasoned not just with salt and pepper but also with a garlicky herb butter unless otherwise specified.

Steaks are so good and so consistently grilled to the specified temperature, it makes you wonder what chef Matt Bowling (another inheritance from Ruth's Chris) could do with, say, a 2-inch thick veal chop.

The chop isn't on the menu, alas, but veal cravings are amply catered to with osso buco and a trio of Italian scaloppine variations. Judging by the tenderness of the veal and the piquant but balanced sauce of veal piccata, those cravings should be well satisfied, too.

Blackened redfish isn't truly blackened (does anyone outside New Orleans still sear the fish in a red-hot cast iron skillet the way Paul Prudhomme, the creator of the dish, did?). But it's nonetheless rewarding, the fillets moist and authentically seasoned.

Even in the most extravagant of restaurants, one of the surest tests of its kitchen is how it handles a humble roast chicken. Rey's French Quarter chicken passes the test with flying colors, delivering a succulent, chestnut-skinned airline breast (both halves together, with the first wing joints attached) stuffed with crawfish and herbed cream cheese, and napped with lemon beurre blanc.

Another steakhouse feature at Rey's is the a la carte service of side dishes. These are uniformly first-rate (my personal favorites are the horseradish mashed potatoes, asparagus with hollandaise and creamed corn) and served in ample portion for three or four to share.

The kitchen is very good, but it isn't perfect. A beautifully cooked rack of lamb is marred by a coarse gravy that masquerades as a mint jus, with nary a hint of mint. And bread pudding is too dense and lacks flavor.

Other desserts are first-rate, however, from classic creme brulee to decadent pecan pie to the aforementioned show-stopping bananas Foster. And the bottles in those fancy wine racks have every taste and budget covered, from Woodbridge white zinfandel at $20 to Opus One cabernet sauvignon at $235.

Service is formal -- waiters in black ties pouring bottled water and crumbing the white linen-draped tables -- but by no means stuffy. In fact, some of the staff are prone to crossing the line into too-familiar territory. With time and experience, this eager forwardness should mellow into a more dignified friendliness. All the staff have to do is follow the example of the restaurant's affable daddy.

Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net

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