Food
4:37 pm
Thu December 26, 2013

Where Y'Eat: Act Two For Tujague's

Back from the brink, a Creole culinary landmark in the French Quarter has been revived and retooled by the next generation.

During a recent lunch at Tujague’s, a man asked his waiter if he was familiar enough with the seafood gumbo to recommend it. “Of course,” the waiter declared. “I’ve been working here for 30 years; it’s always been good.”

Generations of regulars have enjoyed that same level of assurance when dining at Tujague’s. The city's second oldest restaurant, dating to 1856, has been resolutely rooted in tradition, including many of its own making. The most significant was its menu format, a five-course, table d’hôte outing harkening back to dining norms of the 19th century.

These days, however, first-time visitors, life-long patrons and even some veteran staffers are on equal footing as New Orleans gets to know a different Tujague’s. There’s a new à la carte menu here, which isn’t as radical a change as what’s on it.

An appetizer of nearly-raw planks of tuna arrives over corn macque choux, for instance, and wild mushrooms and crabmeat are stuck to delicate puffs of gnocchi with a creamy garlic sauce. You can get Abita root beer glaze on your filet mignon or, at lunch, a seafood Cobb salad with neat ranks of shrimp, lump crabmeat, crumbled bacon and boiled egg over greens. There’s also weekend brunch for the first time.

The changes, directed by owner Mark Latter and chef Richard Bickford, have vaulted Tujague’s out from what was becoming food museum status. The extent and speed with which this beloved but fusty old restaurant has chased modernity might have raised eyebrows, if not for the harrowing circumstances that propelled it all.

Mark’s father Steven Latter, the restaurant’s longtime proprietor and a perpetual presence under its roof, died in February. His brother owns Tujague’s Decatur Street building, and by March word had spread that he planned to sell the property to a local businessman behind a string of French Quarter tee-shirt shops. The news provoked an impassioned public response, and through the spring crowds packed Tujague’s dining room and bar as people visited for what they assumed would be their final meal or cocktail.

Behind the scenes, however, Mark was negotiating with his family — and eventually he was able to buy the restaurant and sign a long-term lease on the building. With Tujague’s landmark location secure, he spent the summer retooling how it would face the future.

Bickford and his crew are now turning out specials like a seared flounder balanced over a foundation of parsnips, cream and gouda puréed as smooth as bisque, and seared scallops awash with a satsuma beurre blanc. Like other menu additions, these dishes are contemporary, if not exactly boundary-pushing. The big change is having choices, and one of those is to order as if it were still the old days.

The Tujague’s set pieces are unchanged, and you can still order the restaurant’s trademark succession of old Creole dishes, from its very sharp shrimp remoulade to its famous boiled beef brisket. And at Tujague’s lushly atmospheric barroom, patrons can still get red beans and rice on Monday nights, one of the many traditions that have stuck to this place over the years. It looks like Tujague’s will have a chance to accumulate a few more as its new course unfolds.

Tujague’s Restaurant

823 Decatur St., (504)-525-8676; tujaguesrestaurant.com

Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sat. and Sun.