The best news of the flying trip to New Orleans is that one of the great restaurants is back with a bang. Brennan's on Royal Street, the big pink house across from the Supreme Court Building, has reopened. Closed for several years, the result of a family feud that could make the plot for a Masterpiece Theater series, it's been freshened up, to put it mildly. And the kitchen? Ah, the kitchen. After falling to shocking levels on our visit several years ago, the kitchen now will have you dancing in the duck. Other delicious things, too, of course, and we'll get to the duck in good time.
Our group dinner the first night was upstairs near huge portraits of Mardi Gras queens a century ago and smaller ones of entire courts of the various krewes. The meal clued us in that changes were clearly afoot. For instance, in the peak of oyster season, we had oven roasted Gulf oysters topped with smoked chili butter, chives and manchego cheese, just a wee bit of heat and a light shower of the cheese, the oysters still succulently juicy.
Another highlight was a shrimp creole risotto. The shrimp, laid out like soldiers atop a mound of risotto, were surrounded by the creole sauce. The menu said there was ginger in it, but the chowzters around me all thought the tomatoes had been smoked some, so complex was the sauce. It made one regret filling up on the oysters, so hard it was to resist just one more bite. Bananas Foster for dessert, of course, invented there at Brennan's in 1951, pepared for us by Etienne DeFelice, one of the captains.
But the menu is not the same as it was. Some of the old favorites have been retained, viz, the Fosters. But for example, their crepes Fitzgerald, involving fresh strawberries, aren't going to be available until local strawberries are in season. "If they aren't good enough, we're not serving it," was the firm announcement.
Then late Saturday night I discovered that a smaller group of fellow Chowzters were planning a visit the next morning for the meal this house made famous, Breakfast at Brennan's.
With planes to catch, we forewent the famous eye-openers, cocktails like milk punch. But chicory coffee was hot and fresh and good enough to elicit grunts of pleasure. The food began to roll in, a dignified pace, to be sure, in the new downstairs garden room that looks out on the patio. From the pastry chef to go with the savory dishes came huge biscuits, more than 3 inches square and 2 inches high, delicate and buttery.Turtle soup that managed to be both light and very full-flavored, nice notes of lemon coming through. Pan-roasted sweetbreads resting on a mound of truffle-laced grits, a sauce of bacon-laced sherry lightly anointing it. Panfried rabbit, slightly crisp, perched atop a bed of tender creamed collard greens, attended by a couple of over-easy eggs.
More eggs in two of the traditional styles of the house. It's possible to get a divided eggs order, so out came an egg hussarde, housemade English muffin for a base, prosciutto ham, the properly poached egg and both hollandaise and marchand de vin sauce - plus an egg Sardou, my old favorite, a crisply fried artichoke bottom instead of the muffin, very lightly creamed spinach, the egg and a sauce choron, bearnaise with a touch of tomato. Let me point out here that hollandaise in New Orleans is perkier than in France, where it's all about the butter. A little more lemon in the New Orleans style and often just a light, light touch of cayenne or Tabasco, just to put flavors more to the front. Good stuff.
Yes, more food. Grillades, not the usual thin slices of veal, but veal cheek made crispy, with cheese grits and over-easy eggs, all drizzled with a little of the juice from pickled pork, another old Creole dish. And then that duck. The menu calls it duck ham - but to me it was more like lean bacon, strips of breast that had been cured, smoked and fried, a little chewy but not tough, absolutely wonderful. And scrambled duck eggs, cooked over a low heat and stirred almost constantly so they remained creamy, some chives in them, and I suspect perhaps some duck fat for the pan. I nearly called my pal who keeps kosher to shriek, "Get down here!"
And just because it's not a meal without dessert, dark chocolate mousse with the rare Criollo chocolate, enrobed in ganache on a chocolate sable cookie, white chocolate ice milk, and a wonderful chocolate florentine that managed to be chocolatey, caramel-y and slightly salty while remaining as brittle as a light glaze of ice.
The executive chef, Slade Rushing, is a Southerner who's worked in San Francisco and New York. He and his wife, Allison Vines-Rushing, returned to New Orleans just before Katrina hit and decided to stay after the storm. It's quite a story. The Brennans have a history of hiring fine chefs and letting them do what they do best, and it's clear that Rushing falls right into that line. And the service is charming, one step back from formal, accustomed to dealing with long-time local customers and newcomers who stare at the menu and have a dozen questions.
Reservations probably necessary already, so get on the phone.
417 Royal Street, New Orleans
Breakfast and Lunch Tues.-Sun., Dinner Tues.-Sat.