My family loves our traditions, especially around the holidays. We’ve never gone to bed on Christmas Eve without donning spanking new pajamas and opening a themed ornament. However, this past year we put our traditions on hold and headed down south to celebrate Christmas in New Orleans. As my brother’s first holiday season as a 21 year old, we swapped holly for Hurricanes on Bourbon Street.
For Christmas day brunch, my family dined at Criollo before catching a mid afternoon flight home. We’re usually pretty adverse to stuffy hotel restaurants, but had slim pickings on restaurants that were actually open on Christmas.
Criollo is located in the back of the historic Hotel Monteleone, which has been family owned and operated in the French Quarter since 1886. Hotel Monteleone also houses the acclaimed Carousel Bar, which is a must visit during your next trip to the Big Easy. The bar is made out of an actual centerpiece of a vintage carousel and slowly rotates inside of the stationary restaurant. It’s hard to believe that Hotel Monteleone is located only one street off of Bourbon due to its classic, old World elegance.
Criollo’s decor was quite charming with an abundance of white lights and Christmas foliage that kept us in the holiday spirit. The service was extremely attentive and we received classic Southern hospitality throughout our meal.
“Tis the season” so my dad promptly ordered a Bloody Mary to start and I matched him with a mimosa to subdue my pre-flight jitters. My freshly squeezed mimosa was champagne heavy, which is always a plus in my book. On the other hand, my day’s Bloody wasn’t as spicy as he had hoped and he thought it could use a boost of Creole tomato flavor. To be fair, before brunch we’d sampled ghost pepper Louisiana hot sauce, which could have skewed the intensity of the Bloody.
By this last leg in the trip, our palates were pretty inundated with carbs between the bread-heavy po boys and requisite corn bread accompanying every meal, but we couldn’t resist Criollo’s complimentary bread basket. The basket was filled to the brim with French rolls and olive bread served with a trio of sea salt, herb, and cane sugar butters. Olives are my kryptonite so I didn’t dare sample the bread, but the resounding conclusion from the rest of the family was that this was a winner. Not to be a Scrooge, but the bread could have been served a bit warmer.
We wanted to consume as much fresh Gulf seafood as possible in the final hours of our vacay, so we started with the shrimp, blue crab and avocado appetizer. This dish truly hit the mark; the seafood was plentiful and fresh, and the avocado added a perfect layer of creamy texture. I didn’t quite taste the heat from the accompanying spicy tomato coulis, but we’ve already established that I have a high spice tolerance from the aforementioned ghost peppers.
As my final bit of decadence on vacation before getting back to the real world of green juices and spin class in NYC, I ordered the poached egg au vent. A runny poached egg is my favorite preparation and I loved how these eggs ran throughout my rich plate of puff pastry, creamed spinach, and goat cheese hollandaise. The egg was poached beautifully, but arrived to our table lukewarm, which was off-putting.
My father’s entree had a similar heating issue. His piping hot pancetta-wrapped shrimp were in stark contrast to the accompanying cool fettuccine. The dish included local field tomatoes, roasted yellow pepper, and Louisiana nantua sauce. We all agreed that the pasta was a bit bland and could benefit from some salt, but the shrimp were tasty. My dad did his best Tom Colicchio impression (we’re Top Chef diehards) and also critiqued that the pancetta was cut a bit thick when paired with the delicate shrimp.
My mom is a fan of the classics, hence our yearly Christmas traditions, and ordered the eggs Benedict. The dish was served with well-cooked asparagus and mushrooms on the side. The entree wasn’t particularly inventive, but my mom complimented the lemony hollandaise.
My brother was gearing up for his final season of Division I collegiate lacrosse, so he upped his protein intake this meal with the grilled swordfish served atop Mediterranean grains, plum chutney, and grilled satsuma, also known as clementines for us Yankees. The fish was cooked beautifully and he easily cleaned his plate.
After debating over a festive Buche de Noel to conclude our epic long weekend of excessive eating and drinking, we called for the check. “I hope it tasted as good as it looked,” remarked our server after watching me meticulously document every dish with my trusty Canon. I wish I could agree wholeheartedly, but compared to some of the other experiences on our vacation, Criollo wasn’t particularly memorable.
The Bitches say: B-. Criollo served beautiful food in an equally stunning hotel, but we didn’t receive the pop of NOLA flavor that we were expecting from this brunch.
Criollo at Hotel Monteleone
214 Royal St.
New Orleans, LA 70130