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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Brigtsen's

Perhaps it’s a reflection of our society’s obsession with the concept of celebrity, or maybe it’s the number of media outlets that need to keep their fires stoked around the clock, but the true currency of celebrity has been devalued by the increasing number of people who find themselves so pronounced by a fickle public and the breathless media that panders to them.

It’s only natural that in a city like New Orleans, where food outstrips even the weather as the leading topic of discussion, chefs would have more cachet than they do in most other places. And while it can be readily argued that New Orleans has far more than its fair share of world-class chefs, the lists of celebrity chefs have become ridiculously long.

These days, lists of New Orleans celebrity chefs usually have at least eight people on them and I’ve seen rosters that include as many as twenty. In an effort to stabilize the hyperbolized currency, I took out a legal pad and a No. 2 Dixon pencil and tried to come up with a list of local chefs deserving to be considered as bona fide celebrities.

I came up with four and a half names, the half being ubiquitous Emeril Lagasse, and the other four being Paul Prudhomme, Susan Spicer, Frank Brigtsen and John Besh.

Lagasse loses his half point because his far flung empire of more than a dozen restaurants across the country, his unrelenting television appearances and his corporate assimilation into the Martha Stewart conglomerate have made him more of a visiting jet-setter than a genuine resident.

Besh continues to hang on to his full star, despite his growing number of restaurants and increasing television gigs. As of this writing, Besh only has his fingers in five restaurants, the furthest away of which is the charming La Provence across Lake Pontchartrain in Lacombe (Louisiana), hardly cause for having a private jet.

Spicer also flirted with over-expansion several times, but a successful cookbook (Crescent City Cooking), happiness in her somewhat recent marriage and the continued runaway demand for “New World Cuisine” at her Creole cottage restaurant, Bayona, keep her securely harbored in New Orleans.

While Paul Prudhomme, generally credited as the creator and champion of hybrid Louisiana cuisine, turned the day-to-day operation of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen over to executive chef Paul Miller years ago, he remains active in recipe development as well as a high profile ambassador for post-Katrina New Orleans and indigenous regional ingredients and cuisine.

This brings us to Frank Brigtsen, probably the least known of the celebrity chefs mentioned, due mostly to the fact that he spends the vast majority of his time in the kitchen, doing what a chef should be doing, namely, cooking original food and writing down the recipes.

Brigtsen’s credentials aren’t flashy. A local New Orleans lad, he grew up eating Creole cooking and kicking around city kitchens until he was 24, when he went to work as an apprentice for Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace in the middle 1970s. He followed Prudhomme and his late wife when they opened K-Paul’s, and became the first Night Chef when the restaurant started serving dinner.

Prudhomme, a Cajun from Opelousas, is best known for creating blackened redfish and integrating Cajun ingredients into the more urbane Creole cooking then prevalent in New Orleans. This put Brigtsen at the epicenter of the birth of the hybrid style Prudhomme referred to as “Louisiana cuisine,” and this period of time would have a profound influence on the up and coming chef.

In 1986, with the help of a loan from his mentor Prudhomme, the energetic Frank and his wife, Marna, opened Brigtsen’s in a shotgun Creole cottage in the Riverbend section of Uptown New Orleans. Located on a quiet side street away from the city’s major convention and tourism centers, the restaurant soon became a bustling local “find” and today remains a busy restaurant with a strong in-town following.

The restaurant has remained small in size, the front of the house (literally) confined in three adjoining rooms with an adjacent shotgun hall alongside. The hall is narrow and tables pack the dining rooms, leaving little room for servers to make their way through the restaurant. With a most gracious staff, one gets the feeling of being at a lively dinner party in a home not spacious enough to fully accommodate it. This in and of itself is not an unpleasant situation by any means; rather, it gives the restaurant an intimate “clubby” feeling – that of a friendly local place serving inspired food instead of a starchy “temple of cuisine.”

While saying that any one restaurant puts out the best plates of food in New Orleans is an invitation to argument, it isn’t difficult to make the case that the best food using local ingredients and techniques is coming out of Frank Brigtsen’s kitchen. It is “Next Step Louisiana Cuisine,” its Cajun and Creole heritages unmistakable, but without the preciousness or over-the-top eccentricities of nouvelle cuisine’s outer reaches.

Main courses are straightforward with restrained flourishes. Consider, if you will, a broiled gulf fish with a crabmeat Parmesan crust, mushrooms and a lemon Mousselline sauce. There’s a pan-roasted pork tenderloin with sweet potato dirty rice and pork debris or a panéed rabbit with a sesame crust, spinach and Creole mustard sauce. It is cooking with complimentary regional flavors instead of exotic ingredients selected for contrast. It is home cooking as high art.

While Brigtsen changes his menu with the seasons, his seafood platter, by far the restaurant’s most frequently ordered entrée, appears year ‘round. It is a sampler of six items: grilled drum with crawfish and jalapeño lime sauce; shrimp cornbread with jalapeño smoked corn butter; baked oyster LeRuth with shrimp and crabmeat; baked oyster with fennel, jalapeño shrimp cole slaw, and panéed sea scallop with asparagus purée.

The same virtuosity is reflected in the appetizer menu, which regularly offers as many as a dozen choices from such traditional items as a filet gumbo with rabbit and andouille sausage or a shortcake made of crawfish etoufée with a basil black pepper biscuit to more adventurous offerings such as oysters and artichoke au gratin or sautéed veal sweetbreads with potato leek cake, mushrooms, capers and lemon roasted garlic butter.

Not too long ago, Mrs. McH and I were contemplating pushing back from our table and waddling down the narrow corridor when our server sweet-talked us into splitting a piece of Brigtsen’s homemade pecan pie, which had been cited on the Food Network TV program The Best Thing I Ever Ate, by none less than Southern cuisine author/connoisseur John T. Edge. While I’m not ready to wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Edge’s glittering evaluation, it was one superb piece of pie and the empty plate looked terribly sad.

Brigtsen’s has now been in business well over twenty years, quite a long time in the restaurant industry, but seemingly the mere blink of an eye in a city where one family has been running a restaurant for 170 years. Yet in these times, when celebrities are ground of the media machine like so much sausage, there’s something refreshing about a man who has quietly built his reputation in his kitchen instead of through chasing press and ceaseless self-promotion.

In a quarter century, Brigtsen has done a mere handful of TV appearances compared to many others in the business, and his empire building seems limited to acquiring Charlie’s Sea Foods, a family seafood place out on industrial Jefferson Highway. If he keeps doing what he’s doing at the level he’s doing it, one of these years, Frank Brigtsen is destined to become an overnight success.


Brigtsen’s, 723 Dante Street (next to River Road)
Open 5:30 until 10 p.m. for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, dark Sunday and Monday.
Reservations strongly encouraged. All major credit cards accepted.
Telephone: (504) 861-7691
Website: www.brigtsens.com

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