901 Louisiana Ave., New Orleans
FOUR STARS (out of four)
This Uptown restaurant has been part of the scene for many years, but over that span it's also been very different restaurants. The latest incarnation has been taking shape over the past two years and really seems to be hitting its stride now.
This stretch of Louisiana Avenue is particularly lush and leafy, and Atchafalaya sits rather discreetly at the corner. Then you notice the gigantic skillet sculpture decorating one wall and the small collection of tables on the sidewalk with flickering candles. It sets the scene for the mix of quirky and romantic that contributes to the charm here. The dining area extends over two small rooms, separated by a few steps, and a colorful mix of art and repurposed woodwork covers the walls. There's a small bar up front that's good for solo diners or drinks over an appetizer. At brunch, bands perform in the corner, and they often include well-known musicians not normally seen on the brunch circuit.
The service style here is a good match for the setting, with its balance of professionalism and personality. Attentive but also unobtrusive, the staff will give you a good idea of what excites them on the menu without seeming to over-sell it.
The setting has evolved gradually through the years, while the food took a distinct turn about a year ago when the well-known local chef Christopher Lynch took the helm. Some old favorites remain namely fried green tomatoes with crabmeat and remoulade and the 'free-form ravioli,' essentially a sheet of pasta loosely wrapping a creamy crabmeat filling. But more in line with the chef's current direction is the crudo raw fish, creatively garnished with oils, herbs, and sometimes unexpected flair. See also the scallops with a pumpkin seed brittle and foie gras vinaigrette and whatever he's doing with mussels that day.
One reason I like this restaurant so much these days is the way its menu starts with a familiar, almost standard, roster of dishes but makes each one of them into something distinctive. Pecan-crusted fish is a Creole set piece, but when the fish is grouper and the sauce is Creole mustard buerre blanc then we're on to something different. Aromatic balsamic reduction and blood orange flavors set off the drum, surrounded by fat crawfish tails, and the duck becomes a country feast of cane syrup glaze, dirty rice, greens and tomato and okra stew. One of the more unusual entrees is also among the best: lamb meatballs, set on oversized Israeli couscous with fresh greens and a cool cucumber yogurt sauce.
Bread pudding, tiramisu and creme brulee cover the standards (even if that creme brulee is spiced with vanilla chai), while the pear tart tatin is revved up with rosemary salted caramel sauce and pistachio-crusted caramel ice cream.
The wine list is tailored and eclectic, though it moves into pretty pricy territory fast. Specialty cocktails hew closer to the classic than the contemporary, but there's still room for surprises.
As impressive as the cooking has become here, the prices have kept pace. Most appetizers are in the mid-teens, and most of the entrees that really grab your attention are in the mid-$20/low-$30 range. A couple should expect to spend $150 for dinner with all the bells and whistles. Brunch is a different story, with most dishes in the teens.
Chef Lynch is taking the kitchen in exciting directions, with a deft and modern cuisine, while at the same time Atchafalaya retains the feel of an upscale neighborhood restaurant. It's right for a special occasion, or for any time visit you want to make special.