Chef John Besh knows what diners expect from a private meal in the penthouse above Restaurant August in New Orleans: “They want to be wowed,” he says. Since the fourth-floor aerie opened in 2002, it has thrived solely on word-of-mouth references from dazzled patrons. Romantics have staged proposals, intimate weddings, and anniversaries there. VIPs favor the penthouse for its privacy, and even business leaders who forgo the two bedrooms find it the perfect setting for high-level meetings. Regardless of the occasion, couples who indulge in the $1,200 overnight stay (dinner alone is $200 per person for a maximum party of six) begin their visit by sipping champagne on the wraparound terrace that overlooks the French Quarter.
The restaurant’s founder, August “Duke” Robin, a former casino developer and real estate mogul turned restaurateur, had the hideaway built as his private pied-à-terre. “It’s a special family thing,” says his daughter and coproprietor, Dionne Bloemer, “but we decided to share it.”
On the street level, Besh presides over Restaurant August’s formal dining room, where the walls are gilded, the chandeliers are crystal, and the banquettes are burgundy velvet. However, he views crafting a personalized seven- to eight-course tasting menu with wine pairings for an intimate penthouse feast as a command performance that allows him to show his chops. “I compare it to writing a symphony,” he says. “I start with a note that won’t overpower the next, and build up to something grand.The bayou-born Besh trained at the Culinary Institute of America, cooked in top European and American restaurants, and brought all of that experience back home to marinate in the rich culinary traditions of south Louisiana. “I try to draw from indigenous flavors,” he says, “but I take a crisp, clean, modern approach that makes them lighter and more straightforward.”
For a recent penthouse dinner, Besh began with local cobia and tuna sashimis garnished with white and green asparagus, followed by lobster tempura wrapped in sugarcane-cured salmon. Three different treatments of figs preceded a cannelloni that was filled with lobster, rabbit tenderloins, and veal sweetbreads and surrounded by a froth of cream and vermouth that included kernels of silver queen corn. Besh also served his signature Moroccan duck spiced with black caraway, cinnamon, black pepper, star anise, and cayenne pepper. “It’s like fireworks going off in the mouth,” he says.
The chef performs the final preparations for the meal in the modest but well-equipped penthouse kitchen. “Some diners really get into it,” he says. “They like to help me plate [the courses] and bring the plates to the table. They’ll ask me to sit down and have some wine, then we’ll get up and do the next course.” Besh likes to prolong the dinner with a cheese course and a fruit dessert before concluding with a sampler plate of chocolate delicacies. His favorite is what he calls a “24-karat-gold candy bar,” a chocolate shell filled with hazelnut praline mousse and painted with gold leaf. “Two little bites,” he says. “It’s sinful.”