823 Decatur St., New Orleans
FOUR STARS (out of four stars)
Things looked grim for the city’s second-oldest restaurant last year, after a family succession issue threatened its future. But since the next generation has successfully taken over, this classic French Creole restaurant has re-emerged with a new lease on life, a firm grasp on tradition and plenty of reasons to visit or revisit.
When you enter through the bar, all looks more-or-less the same at Tujague’s, which is a relief. The bar here is one of the great social rooms of the city, with its long stand-up counter, burnished antique mirror, soaring ceilings and dedicated local regulars. Continue on, and the main dining room has been significantly overhauled, with a neat, clean-lined look of mirrors and white walls replacing the old paneling and display cases. The restaurant wends across a number of private dining rooms each with its own character. Plenty of tourists visit (it is a historic restaurant, after all) but they’re joined by many more locals these days.
Many waiters have built their careers at Tujague’s and these pros still contribute to the dining room’s Old World grace.
In the past, it wasn’t necessary to look over a menu at Tujague’s. Every night, every meal was a progression of classic Creole dishes – and, specifically, classic Tujague’s dishes – with the only choice coming from a few different entrees. It’s a much different format today, though it is important to note that the old table d’hote approach is still available as the traditional, five-course meal. If you’re picking your courses, make sure to start with the shrimp remoulade, a rightfully famous version here made with an assertively strong sauce. Then pass around the oysters en brochette, which are wrapped in bacon and fried, and for a taste of the more modern direction get the seared tuna, which is nearly raw, crusted with sesame seeds and dressed with a sweet and spicy chili glaze. Crabmeat and wild mushrooms join the gnocchi, which is probably the most contemporary appetizer but also functions well as an entrée.
Blackened redfish or soft shell crab with meuniere sauce and the lamb chops or filet mignon with garlic Bordelaise still speak to the classic Creole roots of this kitchen, and the brisket remains a house specialty. As always, you can also ask for chicken bonne femme, an off-the-menu special that’s usually available. Just be ready for the onslaught of garlic accompanying this Creole-style fried chicken platter. It’s epic.
But in addition to the a la carte format, Tujague’s runs specials that get increasingly contemporary, and some more modern crowd-pleasers like blackened shrimp pasta and that crabmeat gnoochi dish mentioned above.
Also new these days is lunch service, with entrée salads and lighter dishes (I like the redfish and shrimp courtbouillon) and po-boys (get the soft shell crab BLT version). There’s also now brunch, with old-time Creole dishes like eggs Sardou and newer dishes like oysters Benedict with tasso.
The bar’s specialty cocktails are still the classic cocktails. You won’t need to see a drinks list to order here. The wine list has seen the biggest change, with a much more interesting array of options, more New World bottles and plenty of respectable choices at lower prices.
Tujague’s is reasonable for an upscale restaurant, keeping prices appropriate and maybe a notch less expensive than you might expect at a landmark dining destination. Most of the steaks and chops and fish are in the high-$20 range, and they include sides as well. A couple should plan to spend $100 on dinner with drinks. Lunch and brunch are significantly less costly.
New Orleans was forced to consider the possibility that it’s second oldest restaurant would become another lost restaurant. But thanks to the smart new direction charted here, the character of the place remains intact and an important local restaurant appears to be headed for a more stable future. It’s not just nostalgic to dine here. It’s downright exciting and even a little inspiring.