It was serendipity that guided me to make a dinner reservation at Frank Brigtsen’s namesake restaurant Brigtsen’s, and I could not have been happier for the outcome. In fact, the turn of events that lead me to dine at Frank’s is one of those ‘so-much-the-better-for-it experiences’ that we stumble over every once in a while in spite of ourselves. Songwriter Garth Brooks put it simply and well when he sang: ” Sometimes, I thank God for unanswered prayers…”
Well, that may be a little grand for the point I am trying to make, but you get the idea. Initially I had tried to make a reservation at another upscale, much beloved New Orleans restaurant ( which shall here remain nameless ) for the evening in question, but their rudeness to me on the telephone immediately nixed my enthusiasm for dining there. As I continued plotting our dining course from home, and (after discounting several restaurants whose reputation I feared might be preceeding the goodness of their food) I discovered a mention of Brightsen’s.
It had good reviews, an accomplished local chef, and was described as a cozy and romatic type of place in a little neighborhood out past Tulane University. Perfect. I placed the call, talked with a nice, welcoming hostess on the phone, and the deed was done.
On the appointed evening, Bob and I took the St. Charles street cablecar to the end of the line and walked the few remaining blocks to Brigtsen’s. The restaurant is located in a cute little white house, and as we walked up the steps onto the porch and entered the house, it felt familiar and good, like visiting a dear old friend or favorite Aunt. Inside, the interior is comprised of a series of small rooms and the decor is quirky , warm and personal - the hallmarks of a one-of-a-kind, owner/family operated restaurant; just the kind of place we love. The restaurant was full and I noticed that everyone had serious quantities of food on their tables.
We were seated, ordered a cocktail ( did you know that the ‘cocktail’ was invented in New Orleans and that many of the bars in town are famous for their cocktail expertise and well-crafted libations? ) and scrutinized the menu. It was clear that ordering was not going to be an easy task – the menu was thoughtfully orchestrated, reflecting both local dishes and local meat and seafood, yet incorporating contemporary tastes and ingredients. After a bit of back and forth and some discussion with our waitperson, we mined the choices that best spoke to us of the season, local ingredients and local food traditions. We chose a selection of:
- File Gumbo with Rabbit and Andouille Sausage
- Gratin of Oysters & Artichokes with Lemon Parmesan Sauce
- Pulled Pork with Corn Macque Choux Griddlecakes & Pepper Jelly Glaze
- Brigtsen’s Seafood Platter ( grilled drum fish with crawfish & japapeno lime sauce; crawfish thermador; fennel baked oyster; baked oyster LeRuth with shrimp & crabmeat; seafood jambalaya cake; seared sea scallop with baby arugula & Japaleno corn vinaigrette )
- Homemade Pecan Pie with Coconut Sorbet
- Tres Leche Cake with fresh Louisiana Strawberries
We chose well and savored every bite even though tha amount of food was a tad bodacious. It was a fantastic meal that featured many flavors carefully woven together yet no individual tastes overshadowed the inherent flavor of the main element of the dish. Each dish was perfectly cooked, moist, succulent and simply presented, not over-sauced or over-condimentized. And most importantly, each dish had sharply delineated flavors and the cooking was sophisticated without being self-conscious or pretentious – there were no disconcordant elements, no unwelcome self-aggrandizing from the kitchen. Perhaps the strawberries on the cake were unnecessary, but of such small issue to be unimportant.
It was clear to us that the chefs in the kitchen care not only about the food they are making and serving but also about the dining pleausure experienced by their patrons. And also ( of huge importance to us) the food and the cooking reflected the place and the heritage in which it was conceived and prepared – this was a soulful meal that spoke ’New Orleans’ and ’Louisiana’ and not San Francisco or New York.
As I hoped, the gumbo was the best and most skillfully prepared that I had in New Orleans (and by the end of our trip I had tried quite a few). It had a deep, multi-layered flavor and a rich, spicy goodness that made my mouth tingle. It made me want to close my eyes and savory every bite for as long as I could. It was elegant rendition of a home-style dish without the clumsey, thick consistency I found in other gumbos. I loved the fact that rabbit rather than chicken was used in the gumbo, a bit of sophistication and down-homeness all at once and one of those delightful lagnaippes one encounters in New Orleans.
So, if you are looking for a true glimpe into the craft and tradition of real New Orleans food cooked by talented local chef and his team, I urge you to put Brigtsen’s on your intinery when you visit New Orleans. If I have not yet convinced you, let me end by saying that this was truly the best food we had in New Orleans, and, one of the best meals we have ever had in the USA. I can’t wait to go back.